Recaps

Netflix’s Sacred Games Is the Thriller We’ve Been Craving

Photo Credit: Netflix

Summer’s final binge-watch: Sacred Games breathes new life into the TV thriller genre.

Much to my dismay, I’ve noticed that some of the leaves on the tree in my neighborhood are starting to change color. The days are getting shorter. The pools will be closing in a few short weeks. Summer’s almost over, y’all. And with the chill of Fall comes the realization of responsibilities. I feel a lot more guilty spending five hours binge-watching Netflix if I only have 11 hours of daylight (in contrast to the 16 hours in peak summer! Living up north has it’s perks). My point it, we’re running out of prime lazy day time. And if want to squeeze in one more glorious summer binge-watch, make it Netflix’s Sacred Games.

It’s no secret that there’s an excess of cop dramas on TV, ranging from the middling procedurals that crowd network channels to the gruesome true crime series that the internet can’t seem to stop talking about. But with the constant stream of options, even the most polished of thrillers can start to feel stale (you can literally watch David Tennant play the exact same role in the British and American version of Broadchurch if you feel like it, that’s how many options we have).

Enter Sacred Games, Netflix India’s recent addition to TV’s crime drama arsenal. Based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name, Sacred Games setting in a gritty, sweltering Mumbai is the polar opposite of the cool, gray overtone that Netflix offerings such as The Fall, Seven Seconds, and Luther all feature. (It’s also tonally perfect for the final sweaty days of summer.) The story centers on police officer Sartaj Singh (played by Bollywood superstar Saif Ali Khan), a rare “good cop” frustrated by the corruption around him, and his attempts to save Mumbai from a terrorist attack associated with an infamous missing crime lord.

Photo Credit: Netflix

Sacred Games is a typical thriller in many ways, featuring crooked cops, a compelling anti-hero and a tightly wound action, but where it stands out is in it’s real star: Mumbai. The idea of brightly colored Bollywood dance numbers tends to dominate the notion of India to a lot of us, especially in reference to Bollywood’s home of Mumbai. But Sacred Games pulls no punches—this is no kitschy musical. While it’s still filled with an excess of sex and violence on par with the genre, Sacred Games attempts something more rooted in reality. You can feel the air in every scene, thick with smog and humidity. Our protagonist Sartaj usually marches around with a large damp circle of sweat on his upper back. You can see the disrepair in his neglected home, the discolored walls, and the inconsistent electricity. Although most of us will be watching with English subtitles, the script seamlessly jumps from Hindi to Marathi, the local language, with a healthy smattering of English words in between, just like how Mumbaikars actually talk.

And what makes Sacred Games so great for a binge watch (besides a compact eight-episode run) is the fact that it can be watched in more than one way. With it’s shootouts, high body count, and visually stunning filming, it’s easy to watch lazily, true television junk food. But for those looking for something a bit more arresting, there’s a much more intricate story being told about the history of India and partition, the sometimes violent history of religious tension in Mumbai and how it related to politics, and how crime and corruption are just a way of life for some.

Photo Credit: Netflix

And most of this more complex storytelling happens in the parallel story being told alongside the one concerning Sartaj. The life story of our main antagonist, the crime boss Gaitonde, is told through a series of extended flashbacks, depicting his rise through the ranks of organized crime in Mumbai. The flashback in the premiere episode almost seems like a one-off, but the Gaitonde storyline ends up commanding more attention than the one happening in the present. It’s in many ways the standard anti-hero tale, though I would argue we’re rarely lulled into outright rooting for him. (He’s never Walter White. He’s always Heisenberg.) But most importantly the Gaitonde flashbacks are so rich in detail, especially with the inclusion of actual historical events like the 1992 Bombay Riots that they could make a supremely watchable show in their own right.

For all of it’s high points, Sacred Games isn’t without it’s shortcomings. The initial premise in the premiere regarding a terrorist plot is mostly ignored for much of the season, only really picking up steam in the last two episodes. The fact that the flashbacks are so compelling means the scenes in the present can fall flat, especially when you notice how much more Gaitonde is fleshed out compared to Sartaj. There are characters introduced early in the season, only to disappear for multiple episodes, making it unclear why they were included in the first place. The English subtitles can sometimes miss the mark, flashing too quickly to be read, and sometimes feel like they aren’t fulling communicating what’s happening in the scene.

But Sacred Games feels exceedingly fresh for what it is. When Netflix is mostly getting positive attention for breathing life back into romantic comedies, it’s surprising and exciting to see “typical” TV fare like the crime thriller really show up and deliver. I’ve watched many of the episodes multiple times over and there’s always something more to pay attention to, more to dissect, and it’s just the absolute opposite of boring in a genre that’s can feel like it’s worn out its welcome.

All 8 episodes of Sacred Games are streaming on Netflix now.

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