What makes Gaitonde click? Varun Grover decodes Sacred Games and its protagonists
Gaitonde played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the first season of the Netflix drama Sacred Games and also in the second drops down on Thursday
A fictional character every now and then acquires real-life overtones, eclipsing the star enacting the role on TV or cinema. Something like that happened in Kenya with the Sacred Games crew which managed to access a location thanks primarily to 'Ganesh Gaitonde'.
The gangster-philosopher, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the first season of the Netflix drama and also in the second that drops down on Thursday, opened doors for the team in far away Kenya, said the show's lead writer Varun Grover.
"There was some shoot in Kenya and they were not getting the location. The person there got to know that Gaitonde would be shooting so they immediately agreed. They were like 'Okay, Gaitonde is coming so we are giving you the location'," he said.
The star in this case had been overshadowed by the character. What makes Gaitonde -- who along with Sartaj Singh, a police officer played by Saif Ali Khan, is the pivot of the show -- so compelling is his part-gangster, part philosopher personality, Grover told PTI.
Gaitonde is almost like a Betaal-like entity, the manipulative ghost from Indian mythology, speaking constantly to cop Sartaj from beyond the grave as he desperately tries to foil a potential bomb attack on Mumbai. According to Grover, Gaitonde's colourful personality, abusive but also reflective and introspective, emerged early in the process of adapting author Vikram Chandra's massive Mumbai-set saga. They wanted to set a certain tone to the story through a sutradhar (narrator) who is taken seriously.
"Part of the reason for Gaitonde's popularity is the way Nawaz has played him. At the same time, it is also because we made him a gangster-philosopher. He has these great lines for every moment, especially the voice-over from beyond the grave. It puts everything in perspective through a big picture scenario," Grover told PTI.
"I don't think there are any gangsters in Indian films or shows who are kind of giving lessons in history while shooting them. We figured that if we make Gaitonde talk from beyond the grave that will give a sense of gravity to whatever is happening. It just carried on and became a narrator's voice for the season," he added.
More than Gaitonde, it was Sartaj's dour straitjacketed character that was tougher to crack for the writing team. "You can see where Gaitonde is going but it was challenging to crack Sartaj's internal journey and his investigation. In the book, he's not really investigating just this case. He is also solving another case of adultery and blackmail. He comes back to this case, like once every 50 pages or so. We decided that Sartaj has to be really focused on the case or be in the middle of it," Grover, also known as a poet, lyricist and satirist, said.
"To figure out the internal journey of the character of Sartaj was difficult. How do you figure out what is troubling your central character? What are the issues that he is facing in life?"
If the first season was about the cat-and-mouse chase between Gaitonde and Sartaj, part two has a third angle with the official entry of Pankaj Tripathi's Guruji, who was given just two scenes in season one.
Grover said the team intentionally hid Tripathi's character from the "top shelf" in the first part as they knew he was going to be a big player in the sophomore installment.
"In season two, he is a key character and a combination of all the spiritual gurus we have seen in our country in the last 30-40 years. We have made him intelligent, logical and scientific. He is definitely not a fraud baba... He is a learned man.
"Guruji's character is well-fleshed out in the novel and we have taken a lot from there but have given him shades of contemporary in the show. We would be successful if viewers aren't able to figure out who he really resembles."
The show, which is adapted from a book written in 2006, appears eerily relevant to the things happening around the country. Grover, part of the hugely popular Aisi Taisi Democracy group, said it comes from being "keyed in" to current affairs.
He wrote the first season with Smita Singh and Vasant Nath and has worked on season two with Dhruv Narang, Pooja Varma and Nihit Bhave. There was not much to change in terms of the timeline, he said, as the book was published in 2006 but there were elements introduced during the adaptation phase.
"Our first job was to make it contemporary because nobody would care about a bomb in the city in 2006 because people will be like, 'so what, we are alive in 2018'.
"We had to make some changes, we wanted to include some contemporary history of the country, which is also there in the book also till 2006. We have just extrapolated from the book. As writers, we are very keyed into current affairs and that helped. Whatever was missing in the book, we took that piece of jigsaw from the world around us."
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