On paper, Sacred Games, Netflix’s first Indian original series, sounds like any other network crime drama: there’s a mysterious gangster with a storied past, an honest cop fighting corruption in the force, and a determined young government worker hoping to make a name for herself; its story focuses on an intricate, high-stakes game between gangster and cop.
What makes the show different, however, is the fact that it’s Netflix’s first foray into Indian television. Set in the dense urban center of Mumbai and with mostly Hindi dialogue (a few exchanges do take place in English), Sacred Games is both distinctly Indian and a refreshing take on a genre long overdue for a facelift.
The show transcends the familiar gangster vs. cop cat-and-mouse chase, often the only saving grace of certain crime thrillers (ahem, True Detective), by enriching it with the fascinating cultural history of India from the 1960s onward. Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), a lowly police inspector and reluctant participant in his boss’s corrupt schemes, receives a cryptic phone call one night and is unwittingly drawn into a game orchestrated by gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
A drug dealer and all-around thug, Gaitonde is wanted for scores of murders in Mumbai and leads Sartaj on a wild goose chase that ends with the inspector storming Gaitonde’s hideout. In phone calls, Gaitonde makes frequent references to Sartaj’s father, himself a respected policeman, and presents riddles threatening the end of days for Mumbai. After a final meeting face-to-face, in which Gaitonde boasts of his ashwatthama (or immortal) status and claims that all of Mumbai will be destroyed in 25 days, Gaitonde kills himself, leaving a stunned Sartaj to piece together the rest of the puzzle.
That may sound like season-finale material, but it all takes place in the series’ first episode. Subsequent episodes show Sartaj’s attempts to unravel Gaitonde’s mystery, with tantalizing flashbacks from Gaitonde’s past spliced in to reveal more and more about the murderer’s backstory. Born into the Brahmin caste, Gaitonde saw his mother killed in front of him after his father caught her with a lover. He fled to Mumbai, where, after a disastrous stint in a vegetarian hotel/restaurant, he joined the ranks of a prominent drug gang, killed the head dealer, and created a ragtag gang of his own in a quest to conquer Mumbai.
Foiling Sartaj’s efforts to unravel Gaitonde’s mystery is his corrupt boss, Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi), who officially removes Sartaj from the case, leaving him to conduct the investigation alone. And then there is Anjali (Radjika Apte), an intelligent and passionate RAW agent (India’s equivalent of the FBI) who’s determined to prove herself to her colleagues through her own investigation into Gaitonde’s past.
Sacred Games is strongest when it fully embraces the uniqueness of its setting; Mumbai is rife with culture and conflicts that fit intriguingly into the narrative. Flashbacks show the struggles of Gaitonde and other lower-caste members to get rich, oust local crime bosses and pay off officials, all while under then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s brutal “state of emergency.” Tensions between castes are prominent in all eras the show takes place in, as well as religious conflicts; a bereft Muslim woman searching for her son is forced from a police station; one officer says her son is not missing, he likely joined al-Qaeda or ISIS instead. Sartaj’s religion—he’s a Sikh—becomes the butt of several jokes, primarily by Hindu characters. These tensions, while fraught with violence, add yet more complexity.
Sacred Games recognizes that Indian history makes for rich backstory—and amazing television on top of that. It’s these glimpses into India’s past struggles as a nation, and its eventual growth into one of the most populous countries in the world, that gives Sacred Games the edge it needs. India’s history and class relations, are, of course, far more complex than the scope of Sacred Games can explore in full, but they’re welcome additions to the crime thriller genre nonetheless.
Not that the show must rely solely on its Indian background for intrigue; a compelling cast of characters and a captivating story keep it from falling flat. There’s still plenty of story left to churn through, too; Sacred Games is an adaptation of a popular novel of the same name by Vikram Chandra—nearly 1000 pages long, the first eight-episode season of Netflix’s adaptation only covers a small portion of the story.
With enough twists and turns to keep even the most weathered crime show veteran entertained, all while taking a fascinating glimpse into the complex culture and history of India, Sacred Games is long overdue, and proves that good crime dramas can take place anywhere. This sentiment can seem a little trite, but at a time when xenophobia is all too rampant, a show like Sacred Games is a reminder that thoughtful, complex portrayals of nonwhite people can occur across all genres—and make for damn good television, too.