THE INCEPTION OF ‘SACRED GAMES’
The whole country and the world is talking about India’s first original Netflix show, Sacred Games, which has put the country on the map of streaming shows. With competition from Narcos and other already established popular gangster genre TV shows, Sacred
The show of the hour Sacred Games deserves all the attention it’s getting. We have got some lesser known secrets and facts for you straight from the writers and makers of the show. Spoilers ahead...
First things first, we need to applaud the writer of the book, Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra, who provided the base for this historical event to take place. The book narrates an uncanny connection between Sartaj Singh, an honest but unlucky cop, and Ganesh Gaitonde, a big gangster from the Mumbai of the ’90s. The book was earlier auctioned to another for a series. The pilot was made in English language as the book is written in the same language, but it didn’t work out. Netflix then acquired the rights of the book and approached Phantom Films, Mumbai, and met Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane.
The Sacred Hunt For Screenwriters
The deal was done, and Netflix had placed its trust on a content-oriented production house. Now began the hunt for the writers who would turn the 900-page book into a finite streaming show. Datta Dave (of Tulsea Pictures) represents a lot of screenwriters in the country, including Varun Grover, the national award-winning lyricist, who has written the critically acclaimed Masaan. Datta, during the Indian Screenwriting Conference 2016, told Varun about the series and that Phantom was looking for writers. Varun initially refused to do it as he was working on making his own film, but Datta insisted on him reading the book before making a decision. Varun’s main apprehension was towards the gangster genre of the book which is done to death in India, but 400 pages into the book and he was hooked. After three days, Varun was roped into the writing team of Sacred Games. The female screenwriter of the show, Smita Singh, was also managed by Datta and just like Varun, she had her concerns too. Her main concern was that the book being a cops and robbers kind shouldn’t leave her to write only the female characters. As a writer, she’s enthralled by the life of cops and would want to write everything about cops, given a choice. Her convincing moment was on the day the themes of the book were discussed which left her teary eyed. The third screenwriter of the show, Vasant Nath, who has assisted director Deepa Mehta and has made award-winning short films, was also dazzled by the offer of writing a violent series as it was not his genre. The writing of the book, which Vasant describes as ‘something that is dark but has been turned into a thing of beauty by Mr Chandra’, drew him in. Also, Datta gave Vasant the book, The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap, to ease him into the process. He was confident that after reading the book, he’d become a master of the ‘Writers Room’ but weeks into the scripting, he realised that none of that actually worked.
The Process Of Adapting A Book Into A Script
In the first month, the writers just discussed the book like fan boys. Whatever jumped at them commonly was put in the ‘definitely to be included’ part. Wherever possible, they made theories about the books and characters like fans do. Mantra Watsa, the writing room and research assistant, broke the book into chapter synopsis and what happens to Sartaj or Gaitonde depending on whose chapter it was, including the key scenes or monologues in the particular chapter. All of that condensed it into a 70-page document which was like an index for the book. In the process, the broader themes of the book were listed down. Step two was working on the characters of both Sartaj and Gaitonde. A list of 10 major characters, each from both the episode and season arcs perspective, was made and their stories were discussed in brief for the next two months. The third step was to work on the season and the episode arcs, but really broad ones. Another two months later, after forming all the character arcs, the main story was put together. Now, the series is presented in two phases—Sartaj’s present and Gaitonde’s past. Therefore, through the point-of-view of both Sartaj and Gaitonde, where all the characters fit in the present story was analysed, which took another two months. After that, the episode outlines were drafted. The drafts went back and forth to Netflix for the feedback process which took another two months. There is a particular format for these shows. The hook points need to be there at the end of the show so that it is binge-able and people start the next episode and then the next episode. Varun says, “We had never dealt with a channel or network that gives you such detailed feedback. For a six-page outline, we’d get a five or six-page feedback. It was strange initially because in India, we are used to the simple feedback like, ‘ Maza nahi aaya’. Initially of course we were irritated, but once we started seeing how it was changing our episodes and translating into the next draft and made it better, it was refreshing.” After locking the episode outlines, the episodes were divided between the writers, and the screenplay writing process began. But this led to changing of the outlines as in some places the logic was not working, or they felt a character could flourish better. This was the last step but then again, there were four or five drafts for every screenplay. That was the broad process. “One major chunk was the research we did that made it real. I mean, you don’t see why there is a fish tank which Katekar feeds. That’s because Smita Nair from Indian Express told us that every police station in Mumbai had a fish tank. It started with one police commissioner in Bombay who loved fish, so he got a fish tank in his office. Seeing him, his juniors also installed fish tanks just to please him. Now the commissioner was retired or transferred, but the fish tanks remained,
and nobody remembers the mythology behind it. These nuggets of information that came from Smita Nair’s research make the viewing more real. So, we used to write the outline of the episode and send it to Smita and she’d come back with 100 stories to put everywhere. Things like ‘ Bhagwaan ka aadmi hai ’ is a lingo of the Mumbai police and gangsters. It means that a guy is safe and good, somebody you can trust. We have Gaitonde saying that about Dilbag Singh, something which won’t be apparent while you watch,” the writers reveal. Also, last year in June, when the writers had only written one episode and the shoot was about to start in the next three months, Vikram took all of them to Goa for two weeks for a break.
Vikramaditya Motwane as The Showrunner
“I had to Google the term. One stubborn thing that I actually did on the show was that we had the option of getting a show runner to guide us through the processes, but I did not take it because I wanted that we do it ourselves. If we didn’t do it ourself, it wouldn’t be uniquely Indian, and it wouldn’t be our voice. At the time, I was struggling with the decision, but I am glad now because it got us a unique voice,” Motwane confesses. Netflix did it really well—the show runner is basically a constant creative voice throughout the show. When there are three very strong minds working on the show, there can be a tendency for the show to go in different directions. Motwane pulled them whenever needed to make sure that there was just the right amount of pace and drama in each episode.
During The Shoot And Edits
Both Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane directed the series together. Anurag captured the history of Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde in his signature Gangs of Wasseypur style and Motwane shot the Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh sequence. Initially, 10 episodes were written down because streaming platforms prefer a 10-episode season. But, the writers thought if they could crunch it into eight to make it denser. So, an eight-episode season was decided. But while editing, Motwane realised that it was getting too congested and they would need another episode. And very seriously, the writers started looking for additional hook points to finish the extra episodes. But when one episode started getting too slow, they came back to eight episodes as planned initially. How did it look in the edit room? “It is impossible to know if something will work or not while you are working on it. The only thing you can know is that it’s not horrible, and that’s all you need to know at that point. After the shooting started and even in the edits, we just thought that it was not horrible. Then, there are moments when you know something is new and that we have achieved something. Like, for example, the day we came up with the idea that Gaitonde’s girlfriend would be Kukoo, which is not there in the book. In the book, she’s just mentioned in a conversation between two constables—Kukoo was a bar dancer and was actually a man. The two passages about some constable being in love with her 20 years ago led to the idea. Why don’t we bring Kukoo as Gaitonde’s girlfriend and create a contention between Isa and Gaitonde? So, this was something that we knew was new, but ‘new’ can also backfire sometimes, it didn’t this time, miracle,” says Varun. Just like the series’ success, we say!
Vikramaditya Motwane, Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath at MAMI