Netflix’s ‘Sacred Games’ Journeys Into the Hard Streets of Mumbai

Streets draped in shadows, crooked cops hiding in the corners and thugs meeting deadly fates. This is the stuff hardboiled noir is made out of. Netflix’s “Sacred Games” brings an international flavor to the genre as it is set in Mumbai for its first, blistering season. Part of the streaming service’s multi-billion dollar plans to vastly expand its content and reach, “Sacred Games” features many familiar thriller elements but in a fresh, stylish setting for Western viewers and Indian fans already familiar with its source material, an acclaimed novel by Vikram Chandra.

Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan stars as Sartaj Singh, a Mumbai cop who tries to live in the straight and narrow path. His distaste for corruption makes him unpopular with his colleagues, who harass and even assault him whenever they suspect he might rat them out. Sartaj has been coming under particular heat over testimony regarding the recent shooting of a teenage suspect. But just as he feels walled in he is contacted by a mysterious voice over the phone. It turns out to be Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a notorious gangster who went missing 15 years ago. Gaitonde narrates his life story to Sartaj, describing his early days as a kid from the gutter who made moved up the ranks of the local drug trade. One of course must ask why a hunted criminal would simply dial up a cop to tell his story. Gaitonde explains it soon enough in the first episode, warning Sartaj that in 25 days everyone in Mumbai, except one person, will die.

“Sacred Games” joins recent Netflix content from abroad, like “Babylon Berlin,” which brings a familiar genre with new approaches to U.S. viewers. The usual flourishes of noir are all here, from the crooked police officials using any excuse to kill a suspect (“he was young enough to be a terrorist”), to the innocent bystanders, such as Sartaj’s wife, who are unaware of the dark dimensions of what is going on. But unlike many American shows of the same type, “Sacred Games” combines its thrills with cultural insights and historical references. Some viewers might not know what Gaitonde is referencing when he mentions the regime of Indira Gandhi to Sartaj, but maybe they should and this is how they will learn. Like Netflix’s other major crime series, “Narcos,” there is a blend here of history and suspense. The caste system, the divisions among  Hindus and Muslims, all flow into the various narratives and characters as Sartaj begins his quest to crack the code to Gaitonde’s apocalyptic threat.

Visually this is one of the best new thrillers to watch. It combines the shadows of noir with the vibrant colors and grit of Mumbai’s slums and more ritzy sectors. Gaitonde’s flashbacks are intercut seamlessly with events happening in the present, hurtling us forward. There’s an almost classic, Martin Scorsese feel to the flashbacks, as Gaitonde describes the Indian drug trade and having to prove you can be a violent killer to get respect (the rules of the underworld are the same anywhere). There are subplot involving unseemly characters such as pimps and dancers, poor souls hoping to become movie stars in India’s massive industry, but lost to the grip of vice.

Unlike the stereotypical idea of India, both culturally and in cinema, “Sacred Games” presents a society both unique and marked by the universal intrigue you find in the crime genre anywhere. There is no Bollywood spectacle here, or flowery dance numbers. Mumbai becomes a place of visceral conflicts. Politicians make crooked promises to the poor, promising more basic resources such as water (even the hero lacks running water at his place). Like “Chinatown,” those in power are as villainous as the gangsters. Gorgeous Bollywood stars move around behind the cameras with fiendish characters (“you look like Donald Trump”). For U.S. viewers this is a great introduction to Saif Ali Kahn, who has the necessary presence and strong will you need for a noir cop trapped in a world where just being clean makes you a target. His superior bluntly tells him to support the department in the case of the murdered teen, or face standing alone against his new adversaries.

“Sacred Games” stays true to the source novel and never reveals too much too fast. At the end of an episode the viewer is left gripped, because new layers are unveiled with every chapter. It all begins with one criminal making a call, but soon Bollywood figures, local businessmen and crooked politicians are all sucked into the vortex of the scheme. Turn the phone off when sitting down for the pilot, because you will soon find yourself binging away.

Sacred Games” season one premieres July 6 on Netflix.