Sacred Games

2 out of 5

Directed by: Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap

This is a show in desperate need of… something.  Focus.  Stakes.  Consistent characters.  It starts off really strong and then squanders its momentum on a split focus that undermines seemingly everything it wants to set up.  Meanwhile, leads Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte give their roles all of the intensity the show’s script thinks it has – which is a good trick while you’re watching them, fully engaged until their scenes stop and you realize nothing much of import happened – but then Nawazuddin Siddiqui is wasted on a character that seems like it was pitched one way, and then written and directed in a completely different way.  An amazing score by Alokananda Dasgupta keeps your ears rapt during the many low points, though this again just sort of amps of the on-screen discrepancy: where is the material deserving of such engaging music?

Two things to note: Sacred Games is based on a critically book to which I have zero exposure, so I can’t speak to how the translation from text to screen holds up, and a good chunk of the show / plot seems to be an excuse to cover some bigger political / social movements / moments from the last 25 years of India’s history.  I’m not a history fan, and especially not informed on the topic; while this was occurring on the show, I thought of other movies or series that have wended their focus into real world events, and realized I generally have a similar response: I don’t care about the history, but I can be made to care; at the same time, I can not be intrigued by the background, but still find the foreground valuable.  With Sacred Games, I did think the deep dive into Indian culture was fascinating – it’s unapologetic, and not ‘teaching’ us or lecturing us so much as just showing us something I assume is relatively accurate – but the historical touchpoints did not make me care about them, …and neither did the characters and their interactions atop them.  So one big half of the show was a snooze to me.

Saif Ali Khan plays disgraced copper Sartaj Singh, struggling with the icky moral politics of his job and continually busted down to lower ranks when he refuses to play the game.  He is contacted, seemingly randomly, by notorious – and missing for several years -m gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Siddiqui), who warns him of impending doom for the country in 25 days.  Singh’s investigation into this claim leads him through various conspiracies, as well as to be intertwined with Anjali Mathur (Apte), a government agent wrapped up in the financial aspects of things gone awry.  One half of this show waywardly follows this case through Singh’s continual pissing-off of higher ups, and his frustrated attempts at following slim leads via usual TV show coincidental contrivances.  But, as mentioned, Khan and Apte are grabbing to watch, and though this aspect of things has its highs and lows (the latter of which especially including a character death that’s presented like it should be a big deal when the relationship has been nonsense prior to that), it’s a cop show I wanted to watch.

Alas, Singh’s investigation also requires him (and us) to listen to a voiceover from Gaitonde, explaining how his past led to this mysterious 25 day deadline.  Our other half of the show is all flashback for Gaitonde, our ‘notorious’ and ‘frightening’ gangster who makes a good first impression – claiming he’s a god and laughing during beatdowns – only to become a bumbling, piss-stained whiner who couldn’t possibly have been a respected gangster.  Every episode after his introduction, his history is presented as being entrancing when it’s anything but; when all he does is make empty boasts based on nothing that’s really offered to the viewer, and react ‘decisively’ to things in a manner that doesn’t feel like it actually evolves his role at all, except that the script suggests it is so.  When we hop back to the present to see some of Gaitonde’s mates, I’m supposing it’s intended to set up “how did they get here?” intrigue, when it really just dials back any stakes or momentum.

Further diminishing those aspects is that our 25 day “countdown” happens at a snail’s pace and with no markers established as to what the days’ passings mean.  That is, suddenly it’s day 18, all bold titles on the screen announcing it; did anything happen in the previous days?  Not in any fashion that feels time-bound.  It’s an arbitrary way to set up some upcoming event, that the show also seems to explain ahead of time, and then suddenly no one knows what it is, then they explain it again, and then no one knows what it is…

My hope is that this turns into a cop procedural starring Singh.  I’d watch the heck out of that.  The fumblingly handled and told conspiracy / history lesson of Sacred Games season one?  Maybe not so much.