Sacred Games writers didn't want to load the script with sex or violence
The team that adapted Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games for Netflix, reveals how it broke down the complex prose and plot to recreate a slow-burning Mumbai noir
Binge watching Sacred Games — Netflix's first original Indian series that released last week — doesn't feel as euphoric, once you start engaging with its heroes. After the thrill of experiencing this on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama subsides, what remain are several unresolved questions and markers of Mumbai at its grittiest worst. For those who haven't read the novel, uncompromising superlatives are the only way to make sense of what you witness on screen — the fearless, hard-boiled characters, and their romance with bloodshed, gore and even, sex.
This could easily have been an ordinary tale of a delinquent's — Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) — monstrous rise as a cold-blooded gangster in the country's mafia heartland, and his own end in the face of a looming apocalypse, which sets an anguished police officer Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) on a wild goose chase. But, writer Vikram Chandra, whose 2006 magnum opus novel was adapted for this series, was unapologetic in his brilliant prose and narrative. So, one would have expected little consolation when writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh took on the arduous task of recreating Chandra's vision on screen, in episodic format. They did, if anything, make this larger-than-life gangster-cop saga very real, disappointing only, by having us anxiously wait for the next season.
It's been a week since the release of the show, and already Grover, Nath and Singh are being eyed as fresh agents of change, having set a tireless benchmark for future writers of online television content. Now, chatting with us over a conference call, the writers reveal the trials and triumphs involved in penning this success story. "We were told that it had to be a gripping, slow-burner," Singh recalls of the brief that was given to them two years ago.
It's true that only copious amounts of reading would have enabled them to get a grip of Chandra's masterpiece. And while they went back to the book on several occasions, Grover admits, help came in handy in the form of research head Smita Nair and writers' room assistant Mantra Watsa, who was tasked with summarising every chapter, and making the complex plot easily accessible to them. "I think our biggest challenge was whether to set it in the period that the novel was written — when mobile phones were still a novelty, or to contemporise it," says Nath. The trio opted for the latter. This also meant re-imagining Chandra's story — 12 years ahead. "When we started out, we were scared about what Chandra would think of our work. We were chucking away some important characters from the original, and bringing in new ones. In the beginning, we were guarded about the script and did not reveal it to Chandra until we had completed the pilot run of the first episode.
To his credit and to our amazement, he was very open to the changes," says Grover.
But with three creative heads along with directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane on board this project, one would wonder how they unanimously managed to agree or disagree on the same things. The very question makes the team break into a laugh. "Smita and I disagreed a lot. But, I think that is very normal in a room with different creative people. When our differences became evident, Vikram [Motwane] would finally step in to resolve the conflict," says Grover, who has previously worked on the screenplay and lyrics of the 2015 award-winning film Masaan. "But, arguing is healthy. It rarely ever happens that you don't come out with something great from it. It's not a writer's room if you don't argue. Ours was a vibrant one," Singh clarifies. "All three of us had very individual journeys over here, but towards the end I really began enjoying the process. We were firing on all cylinders, still arguing and bickering, but a lot of trust grew over the period that we worked together," says Nath.
If there has been some critiquing, it's for employing the formulaic idea of "operatic violence and stylised dialogues" used in hit crime dramas like Narcos and Fargo. While taking it as a compliment, Singh says any comparison takes away from the local flavour of Sacred Games, which thematically is different. Nath says like Narcos, they were trying to tell the history of a place through the underbelly. "In doing so, you get a much more honest cross-section understanding of a place. It's a great format to get to understand a culture," he says.
Then, there is also the unbridled cussing and sex scenes. "If you read the book, it is flowing in blood, and full of sex. So, one could not tell the story of this milieu, by getting rid of these elements, and not losing authenticity. We instead thought it in terms of the characters. For instance, with Gaitonde, who was indulging in rampant sex, I tried to understand what aspect of this was feeding into the understanding that he ends his story with. That brought me into the realm of his visceral engagement with other people. The last thing we wanted to do was load the script with gratuitous sex or violence," says Nath.
It took the writers a year to complete the project, and like Grover recently mentioned on his Facebook page, "the shoot looked too far away, when we had started writing, and then it was right there, knocking on our doors like those rude board exam invigilators while we wanted to write just one page, one sentence, one word more before the sheet is snatched away." One can only imagine what this trio would have done, if they had held on to that page longer.
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