With Sacred Games setting the gold standard for Indian content on global platforms like Netflix, the series’ writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh along with director Vikramaditya Motwane come in for a round table conversation with Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start at the beginning. How did Sacred Games happen?
Vikramaditya Motwane (VM): Now I can see it in context but, earlier, all I knew was that Netflix was looking to come into India. They had Sacred Games as a property, which I think was a fantastic idea. They were obviously looking for a partner but I don’t know who they had spoken to before and how they came to us.
I was in Los Angeles and I got a call to come and meet the Netflix team. It was a very casual, getting-to-know-them kind of meeting. This happened in 2016. Three months later, I was back in LA to meet Netflix and was surprised to see that Vikram Chandra was there. And I was, like, this is serious! Here, you meet 20 times before you finalise anything. There, it is very direct.
I think they chose us, Phantom Films, because we have produced a lot of stuff that is cutting edge. And I guess the Netflix audience is into the detailed sort of stuff. So they must have figured that these guys were the best ones to actually do it. It all happened very quickly. I met (Vikram) Chandra in March, and in May, Kelly and Brian from Netflix were down here and the writers met them. In literally two months, we had the ball rolling on this.
BOI: How did you decide on having three writers on board?
VM: I don’t know, yaar. It’s a random number you pick. Two writers seemed too little and four seemed too many (Laughs). At that point, we had no clue. Maybe four writers would have been better because we had eight episodes. At that point, we just went with saying that these are the writers that I like and these are the voices that I like. We offered a bunch of names to Netflix and said these were the people we wanted to work with. It just happened.
BOI: How true is the show to the book?
Smita Singh (SS): It’s true to what the book aims for. There are certain themes in the book where it talks about India, about a threat to Bombay. It talks about a cop and what a cop’s life is like on the job, the challenges that he has, and it talks about the rise of this don and his trajectory, coming from a very small village to where he reaches. All of that is there.
There is a format for a series and we decided to retain many things thematically as they are in the book. Then what we did was that, say a season ends at a point where there is a really big discovery and if it happens in the first chapter itself or maybe in the first 50 pages, we kind of squeezed one season in that. It’s a lot of action and suspense and thrills. We put all that into a kind of an internal exploration by a cop.
Vasant Nath (VN): The expanse of the book is huge. It dedicates itself to things that are also removed from the action. I think we knew from the start that doing justice to that would be difficult. We had to find imaginative ways to either include as much or just steel ourselves and sacrifice things.
Varun Grover (VG): It was initially a bit of a struggle when we started because it was a really huge book with multiple themes. First, we had to find what we loved in the book, what themes spoke to us and were relevant to India in 2017. The book was written in 2006. It has some political undertones and there’s a lot of politics hidden or hinted at and you have to seek it out.
First, we arrived at decisions on what we agreed on in terms of the themes we wanted to explore. Secondly, the challenge was that in the book, the character of Sartaj Singh was kind of a laidback cop and he makes the discovery of Gaitonde coming back and hiding in the bunker. After that, he is just chasing some other cases. And this case is running in the background. That was one big decision we took, that we wanted the series to not be as atmospheric as the book was. We wanted the atmosphere but we also wanted Sartaj to have that drive, more of a connection to the case, and that is why we brought the father angle to it. The angle is that Gaitonde calls Sartaj because of his connection to the latter’s father Dilbagh Singh.
BOI: That wasn’t in the book?
VG: No, that connection is not there in the book. In the book, there is a connection that comes in later but that is not told to Sartaj directly. Only the reader is aware of it. The book is structured like a mandala, as Chandra calls it. There are many, many pieces and only someone on the outside can see the entire structure but someone who is making it or who is part of the mandala won’t know what the other part is.
We tried to retain a bit of that structure but not all of it because we also wanted to see the game being played…. people knowing some of the stuff but not the bigger mystery. All those things took up the initial few months and thankfully we had a lot of time, although it still feels like we needed more. We wanted six months more to do justice to what we were doing. But we did get a full year to write, of which we spent the first three months just discussing themes and characters. A lot of it was kind of adapted and not directly taken from the book. It was more in Sartaj’s story and less in Gaitonde’s story because the latter had a gangster story arc. It was not as atmospheric as Sartaj’s story was. We didn’t really feel the need to change that a lot but for Sartaj’s story, we had to adapt a lot of stuff.
BOI: Apparently even the popular Kukoo’s character wasn’t really in the book but was developed only for the show.
VG: Yes, it’s not in the book. I mean, there was one throwaway reference about one constable talking about Kukoo, this transgender person, who is a bar dancer, having an affair with another constable, like 20 years ago. We were reading and we felt this could be placed in the same time when Gaitonde was in the city, so why not place Kukoo with Gaitonde? That was another adaptation.
BOI: When there are multiple writers involved, in this case the three of you, how is the creative process shared?
SS: If you take the Kukoo example, one of the reasons was also that it opens up Bombay and we were trying to include as much of that in Gaitonde’s story, the spaces that the book has and even if it’s not that much in the book but how would Gaitonde move around, where would he be, and the idea of breaking Bombay down between Isa and him. Then there is this interesting idea about Kukoo, a very famous bar dancer. Varun took it forward to making Kukoo Gaitonde’s lover and then Vasant took it forward to Kukoo’s own ideas of herself and who she is.
VN: There was a stage when we all shared the responsibility of breaking story, and the possibilities of characters like Kukoo within that story, but that eventually led us to a point where we had to take responsibility for different parts of the story through our episodes. I had to deal specifically with Kukoo in one of my episodes; Smita had to deal with Katekar specifically. I think taking responsibility for those sections and really figuring out how to add flavour to it… We all had opportunities to do that with different parts of the story. That was towards the end of the process of the actual scripting.
BOI: In terms of the mathematics of it, did you break down the book into ‘x’ number of seasons and then work towards where season one ends?
VM: Yes, we sort of broke it down as we knew that there were would be multiple seasons; you can’t do the whole thing in one season. But I think you have to leave that behind. You can’t say that we have to make ‘x’ number of seasons based on the book. I think we left that discussion behind quite early. Initially, we were like we would do three or four. But that soon went out of the window. We were like let’s do what is best for Season One. Let us not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s figure where Season One ends, let’s work on that and then we’ll take care of the rest.
BOI: It is Netflix’s first Indian original. There was no precedent for you to build on or follow or learn from. Was that liberating or was that daunting?
VG: Both, in a way, but I think more liberating. For me at least because given the response, I feel if there is a next season, it will be difficult because now there is so much feedback coming in, people saying Katekar ko wapas le aao, to which I can only say abhi mar gaya hai woh to wapas kahase le aao?! These external pressures were not there nor was there any internal pressure because of the way Netflix was treating us, we got so much time to write and then to shoot and edit.
They also did not give us any instructions on how to approach or execute the story. It’s a new country, a new market, create your own story. In fact, at one point, we wanted a mentor from America, so we asked someone from the Narcos team to spend a week with us, to go over whatever we had written and give us some ideas.
But that didn’t happen. At that time, we were, like, arre bhej dete toh achha hota but later we figured that it worked out for the best because we got to do our own thing. We did exactly what we wanted to, without any pressure, without any model to follow.
VM: There is a daunting side too, which is production. Since this is the first Netflix show in India, the competition is not Indian, it is international. The quality of production, the quality of everything has to be at par with international standards. You are basically saying that this is feature film quality and non-feature film budgets. I think that was the daunting part because we had 340 pages to shoot in 100 days. Usually, you shoot 100-120 pages in 50 days. So, here, we were doing four times the number of pages in twice the number of days.
That was daunting and also keeping the quality consistent. It was tough to achieve that balance and wanting to be able to cast a Nawazuddin (Siddiqui) and a Saif (Ali Khan). It was the first show and we needed the eyeballs and they got that. Without them, I don’t know if the show would have got the eyeballs that it did.
BOI: Do time and budget constraints impact the writing?
VM: Yes, it does, because I was sitting there and saying that ‘we can’t afford this’. Literally, we have gone through stuff and decided to chop, chop, chop.
SS: I was just thinking of one of the Gaitonde’s episodes where we had ships, and Vikram was like, I don’t think so…
VN: And Rolls Royces coming out of the sea.
SS: In a night shoot…
VM: I was, like, this is not going to happen, right?
SS: A moonlight fight sequence or something like that…
VG: All of us had imagined that. Gaitonde looking at the ships of Isa, full of Rolls Royces, and then one Rolls Royce washes up on Juhu Beach, then we changed the ship into a small boat and then we changed actually showing the boat into just a reference about it!
BOI: Did the presence of Saif and Nawazuddin in the show impact the script in any way? Did you try to play to their strengths?
VM: Not at all. Our pilot was ready well before that. We were well on our way before they agreed to do the show. I think they agreed based on the strength of the writing, instead of the other way around. We didn’t change the script in any way because they were there in it. Of course, certain things in the shoot changed. Like, Nawaz is scared of water, so some of the scenes had to be adjusted for him.
BOI: That’s why the ship scene didn’t happen?
VM: Actually, in the first episode, the killing of Salim was to happen underwater. He (Gaitonde) remembers his father, picks up a stone and all that. We couldn’t shoot that because of Nawaz’s fear of water.
VN: We had to leave out many of the underwater visions, like that of his mother, the Ganpati scene…
VM: Yes, woh sab nikal gaya. So whenever there were water scenes, we were, like, oh Nawaz is scared of water. (Laughs).
BOI: How liberating was it to write knowing that Vikram didn’t have to get the series approved by the Censor Board?
VG: (Laughs) For me, I never write thinking of the CBFC. That is for other people to decide. You can’t write while wondering what is going to be censored. You write and then see how much is cut. You have to deal with that later. But I don’t think anything was written because there was no CBFC involved. We were adapting a book which is full of sex, violence and cuss words. So that was already sealed. We knew that yeh hai, isko adapt karte waqt hum Anup Jalota ka bhajan toh nahin bana sakte! Gaaliyan hi hain isme, toh rahengi. Then we will see. It was only our own moral compass that allowed us to do whatever we were doing and stopped us when it needed to.
BOI: There is a lot of talk about bringing censorship to the digital space too.
VM: You have to self-police these kinds of things. I have this argument with the Censor Board as to why we can’t have gaalis. They are, like, bacche theatre mein jaate hain. But that is not our problem. That is a policing issue. A person under the age of 18 should not be allowed inside the theatre for a film that is not for them. It is the same thing over here. It is written big and in bold when a show starts that it is not for those below the age of 16 or 18. Read it. You don’t like it, turn it off. You have the option, especially on Netflix.
BOI: And for those looking out for smut, there are anyway lots of online options beyond OTT platforms.
VM: Exactly. But on the other side, there is also a danger. We have been responsible with our writing. ‘There is no censorship, so let us have a party’ – we have not done that. We have been very honest and truthful. But there are people who will take advantage of it. Hopefully, that won’t lead to the government suddenly clamping down. I hope that we all continue to use the medium responsibly.
Other than the PIL on the Rajiv Gandhi issue, nobody has said that there is too much nudity in the show. Yes, there have been comments. I have people coming and asking me why so many gaalis. But that is how they talk. And that is okay. But they haven’t gone and done a dharna about it. The audience gets it. I hope no one takes that liberty too far and then provokes the authorities to take action.
VG: From 1947 until Omkara released, I don’t think cuss words were a part of any popular Hindi film. Where did we learn these words? Definitely not from films. Films mein nahi thi toh kya sudhar gaye log desh mein?! It is wrong to blame films for teaching us cuss words. We have not learnt them from films. Likewise, children must have learnt them somewhere else. Films are just making sure that the grammar is correct (Laughs).
BOI: Compared to films, do you think this is a better medium for a writer because of the lack of regulation, so far at least?
VG: That is true. I don’t even hate the beeped-out or cut-out cuss words from films. They are cut out so you don’t notice them sometimes. What I hate is the smoking warning. It kills the aesthetics of the frame. It kills the mood of the frame. Of course, there are things you can do in long narrative, on Netflix, on any other platform. That is true. But at the same time, I love cinema. So it is not like that there is a choice. I love doing both.
Again, as I said, I don’t think of the CBFC, so I don’t think of it as more liberating. In that sense, you still have stories that can be told only on the big screen or only in a short format, like a 90-minute story.
VM: A lot of credit has to go to the medium itself. We don’t give enough credit to the medium, which allows you to write six to eight hours a season times multiple seasons. It gives you the time to flesh out your characters. It gives us time and space. That is what we complain about when we write our films. It takes a special skill to be able to create wonderful characters in movies because you know that you have only a few pages.
This medium allows you so many more pages that it is difficult to have bad characters in shows. I have very rarely seen a bad character. Normally, they are very intriguing and meaty. I think, as writers, to be able to stay with your material is quite nice. I hate putting an end to certain journeys. The journey itself is so much fun that you don’t want to end it.
SS: Like Vikram says, the idea that there doesn’t have to be a sense of finality to what you write and create – the characters, the journey – is exciting. It doesn’t seem natural when you do that, it seems forced. When you say a character is at peace with himself, that doesn’t happen. So the idea that you can keep churning out story after story after story… I love that.
VN: After finishing Season One, I went into writing a novel and after that, into a screenplay. These are different formats, each with a different set of mechanics. The more you engage with one, you come to the other one with a new set of tools, greater strengths and sharper skills. To be able to function in more than one, rather than just in the cinema space, will continue to give writers the opportunity to become a lot better. I appreciate all that and it is going to do a lot of good for the industry.
BOI: It is interesting to see a Maharashtrian guy in Sacred Games talking in Marathi or Saif, who plays a Punjabi, talking in his language. Were you tempted to keep it in Hindi throughout so that it was universal?
VM: It was Varun who asked why are we making Sartaj and his mom talk in Hindi, they should talk in Punjabi. That led to the Maharashtrian talking in Marathi.
VN: I think that was a really amazing layer because it added authenticity. After writing the script, I had been away from the whole process. When I watched this finally, that is what pulled me in and threw me into their world.
VM: It was great that the actors could do that. Also, so much of what Katekar said was improvised. Jitendra Joshi, the actor, just went to town with it. He asked me if he could say this and I would just ask him what it meant and then say yes.
BOI: It is interesting that you guys came together in March, 2016 and it took two and a half years to execute it. People tend to think that digital is an easy medium but obviously it is a lot of hard work.
VM: Absolutely! It annoys me when people use the term ‘web series’. In pure technical terms, it is a web series because it is on the internet. But there is a huge difference between a 10-minute skit on YouTube and a Netflix show. There is a massive difference. If you put all of them under the same umbrella, it is a little unfair to both. Some of the smaller ones are great, like what TVF does. It is great to go out there, learn the craft and do riyaaz at every level, as an actor or as a writer. You have to keep practicing to get somewhere. It is fantastic, in that sense.
Yes, the proliferation of this medium is wonderful because it means more writers and more directors. People get a chance to hone their craft. I just feel it doesn’t fall in the same pattern that television or the movies fell into. If your audience keeps watching this and pushing the makers to keep reinventing themselves all the time, that is a great thing. It should not reach a plateau, where Indian television reached. The signs are good today. If you see something that is genuinely clutter-breaking, it has worked. But, yes, you need to give writers more opportunities.
BOI: While on the subject of TV plateauing, it is interesting that Indian television content was quite good in the mid-1980s to early 90s despite Doordarshan being the only player. Some would say that the quality actually deteriorated as competition between private GECs intensified.
VM: The Americans say they are going through a golden age of television right now. But the dramatic television for them started in the 1990s, when you had shows like Lost, Prison Break and 24. Before that too, the BBC had lovely shows like Traffic, State Of Play and Edge Darkness. They were wonderful six-part series. In fact, the British had that television culture from the ’80s. The first time I ‘binged’ on TV – the term didn’t exist back then! – was when the original Traffic TV series released. It was in six DVDs. That culture has been there for a while but we have just seen it. Those earlier shows led them to the HBO shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and that led to where we are now. This is the first baby step. We will reach our golden age 20 years from now.
BOI: Finally, let’s talk about the fabulous response Sacred Games has been receiving from all over. Any special reaction that stands out for you?
VM: It is being spread to 190 countries and you cannot beat that. You cannot top the fact that your work is going to be everywhere on the same day. In films, we have been fighting the Friday mafia for the longest time. You have to fight for marketing, shows and even the placement of your standees in movie theatres, to gather eyeballs. You don’t have to do that here. It just throws the mafia out the window. I mean, if your film underperforms even slightly, they will cut your shows.
Quite honestly, the films we make are the ones that grow over time but we don’t have enough cinemas to let them do that. It’s actually funny because people are coming to me and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t seen Sacred Games yet.’ And I tell them don’t be sorry because it is going to be there forever. Watch it when you want, yaar. (Laughs). They are so used to the film format ke teri picture nahi dekhi, it’s the third week, abhi nikal jayegi. But that is not the issue here and you cannot compete with that.
VN: My favourite response is somebody from Uttar Pradesh messaging me, saying, ‘My father is a government servant who does not watch movies but when I showed him Sacred Games, he kept asking me to put on one episode after another.’ He then asked the son to write a message to all of us, congratulating us. And the boy said ‘Thank you for giving this gift to my father.’ Not just to him but to a generation before him too. That was a real boost for me.
VM: A friend of mine also said that his father and he never talk. They watch different kinds of things. One day, he was watching the trailer and his father noticed it, and said he wanted to see it too. He said that the show actually made them spend eight hours together, which is great!
BOI: That’s interesting because the perception is that the digital medium is mainly for the youth.
VG: That is not true. The best thing I have heard is that a lot of Mumbai cops are watching it. And I am not only talking about IPS officers. Constables, regular policemen, inspectors, so many of them have also watched it. Smita Nair, who did research for our show, told us that many of the cops she spoke to earlier had told her that they watched the show too. She also told us that she had gone to a police station for some work and she saw a constable there watching the show on his phone. It is great that they are getting to watch a show with a cop and a constable in Mumbai doing their job.