Net­flix games

Business Standard - - OPINION - VIKRAM JOHRI

In the first scene of the newly re­leased Net­flix adap­ta­tion of Vikram Chandra’s novel, Sa­cred Games, Jojo Mas­caren­has’ (played by Surveen Chawla) Pomera­nian is thrown out­side an apart­ment build­ing by her con­sort Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazud­din Sid­diqui). In the orig­i­nal novel, the poor crea­ture is thrown out of a mov­ing car, which does not make it less painful, but at least on the page, one is spared the har­row­ing cries of the dy­ing an­i­mal.

That first scene en­cap­su­lates this Phan­tom Pic­tures’ adap­ta­tion. Take what you need from the orig­i­nal, pack it with dark­ness to give it the aura of re­spectabil­ity, mute the colours to make it eye-catch­ingly dreary and pur­port­edly se­duc­tive, and you have the test case for Net­flix’s foray into orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming from In­dia.

The story is fairly straight­for­ward. Inspector Sar­taj Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan), a po­lice of­fi­cer down on his luck, re­ceives a call from dreaded gang­ster Gaitonde mo­ments be­fore the lat­ter’s death. The mes­sage, about a pos­si­ble at­tack on Mum­bai, is cryp­tic, as is Gaitonde’s rea­son for seek­ing out Singh. Over the course of the novel — and this eight-episode se­ries — the na­ture of the threat and the ori­gin of Gaitonde’s back­story are dis­cussed.

Also present is RAW (Re­search and Anal­y­sis Wing) agent An­jali Mathur (played by Rad­hika Apte), cer­tain that Gaitonde’s death is not, as is be­lieved by some in her agency, the out­come of a gang war. She is proved right ul­ti­mately, but the de­noue­ment is never the most in­ter­est­ing se­quence in an Anurag Kashyap production. Here, too, we are ex­pected to sit back and soak in the abuse-laden au­then­tic­ity.

The show is cer­tainly stylish. Set in Mum­bai, it uses the city’s easy ac­com­mo­da­tion of dual op­po­sites — rich and poor, mo­ral and amoral, power-hun­gry and al­ready pow­er­ful — to con­sid­er­able ef­fect, fash­ion­ing a tale in which the high­est rungs of so­ci­ety are shaped by, and stay be­holden to, the grim­i­ness of the street. Gaitonde builds his first for­tune by lay­ing claim to a garbage dump in what is a tooapt metaphor for both the plight and prom­ise of this megapo­lis.

In its treat­ment, Sa­cred Games­di­verges sig­nif­i­cantly from the book that in­spired it, in that it isn’t strictly about the men who oc­cu­pied the book’s cen­tre stage. Sid­diqui’s Gaitonde has the cav­a­lier cool of that other, clas­sic don he played, Faizal from Gangs of Wassey­pur as op­posed to the Gaitonde of the book, a mousy in­ter­loper who comes to rule Mum­bai through sheer cun­ning.

Sim­i­larly, Khan’s Singh is the upright cen­tre of a world gone to mo­ral waste. In an early scene, he is beaten by a fel­low cop for his re­fusal to go along with the po­lice depart­ment’s ver­sion of a fake en­counter. We root for him for this rea­son, for shin­ing a dim light into the per­va­sive dark­ness. The book’s Sar­taj is a greyer char­ac­ter, will­ing to do right but not so cer­tain of his mo­tives.

The se­ries runs a count­down on the screen, as the char­ac­ters and the viewer mark the days be­fore Gaitonde’s enig­matic warn­ing comes to pass. This gives the show the look and feel of a thriller, some­thing I am not sure Chandra had in mind when he imag­ined his novel. While you keep your eyes peeled for the next sur­prise dis­cov­ery, you do not nec­es­sar­ily learn as much about the deep, provoca­tive world Chandra wrought in his doorstop­per.

Even so, what can­not be es­caped is the po­lit­i­cal na­ture of the work. The un­kind ref­er­ences to Ra­jiv Gandhi have al­ready hit the head­lines, which is a sur­prise be­cause most of it is al­to­gether mild com­pared to, say, the crit­i­cism di­rected at Indira Gandhi by Ro­hin­ton Mistry in A Fine Bal­ance. Heaven for­fend if that book were ever made into a tele­vi­sion show.

But I use “po­lit­i­cal” in a dif­fer­ent sense. Sa­cred Game­sis a novel of the 20th cen­tury, of an In­dia where Mum­bai, then Bom­bay, of­fered the prospect of es­cape from grind­ing poverty only if one were will­ing to strike a bar­gain with the devil. From the re­bel­lion of his child­hood to his dom­i­na­tion of the Mum­bai un­der­world, lit­tle of sa­tanic im­port is left out of Gaitonde’s story. In a cast­ing choice drip­ping in sym­bol­ism, Sunny Pawar, the young boy from transna­tional adop­tion drama, Lion, por­trays Gaitonde’s child­hood.

That only a cer­tain Mum­bai story — look at Salaam Bom­bay and Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire for other ex­am­ples — gets made when an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence is as much a tar­get as the desi viewer, should in­voke ques­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It can be ar­gued that each of th­ese prod­ucts show­cases an In­dia, and cer­tainly a Mum­bai, that was — and per­haps re­mains — a his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity for vast swathes of our pop­u­la­tion.

In­deed, the famed “tri­umph of the spirit” nar­ra­tive that is so of­ten bandied about for Mum­bai, and not just on reel, emerges from the real, ma­te­rial prob­lems that con­tinue to plague this coun­try. Yet, one would like to be­lieve that In­dia has also suf­fi­ciently changed over re­cent decades to of­fer less grim, less crime-in­fested nar­ra­tives about climb­ing the so­cial lad­der.

I imag­ine an in­ter­na­tional viewer ap­pre­ci­at­ing Kashyap’s vis­ual style, the tight­ness of the ac­tion or the be­fit­ting back­ground score. I won­der, though, if the all-pow­er­ful Net­flix would give this viewer other sto­ries be­fore he makes, and hard­ens, his im­pres­sion of In­dia.

Ev­ery week, Eye Cul­ture fea­tures writ­ers with an en­ter­tain­ing crit­i­cal take on art, mu­sic, dance, film and sport

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