Feeling liberated was a common sentiment experienced by the principal cast of Sacred Games, Netflix’s first Indian TV series premiering on July 6.
Directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, the eight-part series boasts a cast that rivals a big-budget Bollywood musical. Actors Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte are in charge of bringing alive the gangland thriller written by celebrated author Vikram Chandra.
“The medium [digital] was so liberating. As a director, you want to be able to tell stories that don’t have to be told in two-and-a-half hours with an interval and three songs inserted into it. So many of these boundaries weren’t there … To create something where characters have conflicts going on for years was a lot of fun,” said Motwane. Sacred Games dwells into the rise and fall of Mumbai mobster Ganesh Gaitonde (Siddiqui) and his sly power games with an unassuming Sikh cop Sartaj Singh (Khan). While Kashyap, who is known for his violent and putrid films such as Gangs Of Wasseypur, was in charge of culling out the best from Siddiqi’s morally corrupt character, Motwane worked on Sartaj’s emotionally complex character.
But what bound them together was their implicit trust in each other and the material in their hands. However, complete freedom also came with self-imposed censorship.
“Just because there is no censorship, we didn’t tell each other to let go and have a party. Self censorship has always been there. Even when we are shooting sex scenes, it is not pornography or while shooting violent scenes, it wasn’t a different sort of pornography,” said Kashyap.
Before you gear up to binge-watch Sacred Games, set in the mean streets of Mumbai, here’s our interview with the stars of the series…
MEET THE PLAYERS OF THE SACRED GAMES
Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh, the emotionally complex cop.
‘Sacred Games’ seems to be an unsanitised gangster drama…
But I did ask them to sanitise the bathroom seen in one of the scenes because at least one million people go through it. Vikram [director Vikramaditya Motwane] asked me if I could crawl on the floor as you are beaten up and your head was being flushed in the latrine. And I said: ‘would it be possible to disinfect it slightly because I might die.’ But apart from that, nothing was sanitised.
Sartaj seems to be an emotionally complex and a vulnerable hero. What was it about the role that attracted you?
With Sartaj’s character, it was an interesting arc. It started out real slow and that was frustrating because I wasn’t used to playing such damaged characters. But that was the charm too. Sartaj is addicted to sleeping pills to remain calm. He made a mess of his marriage and his career is going nowhere. Sartaj, that poor fellow, was in a bad place. From there to where he ends up in the series where he becomes a hero who does the right thing. Two words come to my mind when it comes to Sartaj: troubled and honest. That’s the lens with which I approached this character.
Did you read Vikram Chandra’s book as a part of your preparation?
I love reading and I wasn’t frightened at the prospect of reading 1,000 pages. But I was told there were substantial changes. I read bits of it and it was beautiful prose, but after a point it wasn’t helping me find what I needed as an actor. I stopped, but I was familiar with it.
‘Sacred Games’ is a searing portrait of modern India where a city is rotting under the weight of corrupt politicians, morally bankrupt gangsters and police officers. Religion is a tool being used to create divides. Were you apprehensive about taking on such a series?
There’s this lack of censorship on this platform, which is a wonderful thing, but it is not something that we have been overexcited like children about. We are not using expletives and did not put in too much violence or make politically irresponsible statements. All we have tried to do is to make an entertaining story keeping in mind the book. This is a perfect show for India and I am proud to be a part of it. The complexities between the underworld and the politicians, the cops and the movie stars … everybody who is vaguely aware of our country knows that this is what happens. In the past, shows such as The Killing were in the same template as Sacred Games. It’s about connecting the dots, but I don’t think we will ruffle any feathers here. There’s something about a gangster genre that lends itself to the Indian context. There’s something romantic about a person with a doomed future. As a kid I watched Alain Delon movies. He was this super good-looking gangster in films such as The Sicilian Clan. He was way cooler than the cops.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde, the morally bankrupt gangster.
Ganesh is unapologetically bad in this series. What was it like playing this role?
He’s one of the most complex characters I have ever played. His perception is that he’s right in the way he does business. I have read the book and there’s a lot of detailing of my character. It benefited me a lot. But I knew that he was a complicated individual. However, my process with the directors was an organic one. We began by playing my easy bits before exploring my dark, morbid phase. The intriguing part about Ganesh is that he has an internal camera into the way he views the world around him. He doesn’t realise how troubled he is or maybe his warped persona can be attributed to his personal experiences that life dealt him with. Ganesh has this hunger for power and wealth.
Your role demanded that you act out violent sex scenes. How disturbing was it to film those graphic parts?
It was very difficult to film such scenes. For a week straight, we filmed those scenes continuously and by the fourth day I had joined my hands together and pleaded that we stop. Even on the health front, my well-being wasn’t right. But I had to do it with conviction because if you are not convinced then you are just cheating as an actor.
Do you think digital format TV series is the new future of Bollywood?
I cannot be sure about the future but I am convinced that complex series get a better play in TV series. Due to censorship in films, we stop ourselves from going into details of a bad character because of the restrictions in place. Such limitations in films stop a viewer from entering the inner world of the characters. The characters in films aren’t deep.
Radhika Apte as Anjali Mathur, the no-nonsense intelligence officer
Q: Tell us about your character?
A: I play Anjali Mathur, who’s a RAW agent, which stands for Research & Analysis. I didn’t know much about RAW agents because there isn’t much information available. We have developed Anjali into the completely no-nonsense, focused woman who’s highly respected in her field and by her peers. She’s very sharp, brave and intuitive. She wants to be a field agent, just like her father. But her seniors want her to work behind the desk. So that’s a constant struggle, but she gets pulled into the Ganesh Gaitonde case and meets Sartaj. It’s how their collaboration begins. Sacred Games is a beautiful ensemble where you can empathise with every flawed character.
Q: There’s a scene where you take on a male colleague for being sexist when he tells you that you belong to the desk, rather than the field. Do you think ‘Sacred Games’ tackles issues that today’s working women face?
A: This has been an issue that women have been facing for the longest time. When I am performing, it’s more about my character. But it’s relatable on every level. Plus, what’s challenging was that because she was so no-nonsense, what she does is minimal but with every little bit she does she has to convey a lot. To maintain that balance was a tricky one.
Q: Bollywood tends to glamorise RAW agents, but ‘Sacred Games’ refrains from doing so. Was that liberating?
A: Everyone was expecting Sacred Games to be the badass and with women having fancy guns and heels. We played her extremely real. When you are a RAW agent you cannot attract attention. They cannot wear clothes that are loud or wear bangles that will attract a flash light.
Q: You have done a variety of roles in Hindi cinema, despite being an outsider …
A: I don’t like the words ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’. It’s just a journey and I am just in the beginning of it. I am sure there’s lots to do. I choose the paths that I relate to. There’s no strategy.
Q: A Netflix series isn’t subject to strict censorship rules like a Hindi film. Was that a relief?
A: It was liberating as an actor, not because you are allowed to say a few words that censors wouldn’t allow. But I am against censorship, particularly the way it exists. It liberates you in terms of your body language and the way you think. You can go in whichever direction you want to go in and that makes you feel free and able to express.
Don’t miss it
Sacred Games begins streaming on Netflix from July 6.