Sitting snug on a 100 per cent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes in its very first week, Netflix’s Sacred Games has set a new benchmark for Indian-produced Internet shows. This comes at a time when the American streaming giant is battling the likes of Amazon Prime for a slice of India’s fast growing market of smart-phone users. The drama series produced by the Anil Ambani-driven Reliance Entertainment is a joint venture that ropes in Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films in a first of the eight Indian series that Netflix has commissioned to be released over the next phase.
We can now perhaps safely assume that the “Netflix and Chill” fantasy is truly coming alive for all Indians, because, in less than a month, not just Sacred Games but also Lust Stories – an omnibus scripted and directed by the biggest names in B’town and acquired by Netflix – has facilitated, at least outwardly, the momentum of the online streaming channel as a harbinger of video-streaming space in India.
According to a PwC report released last month, revenues from India’s entertainment streaming industry are expected to be US$823 million by 2022, up from US$297 million in 2017. “Sacred Games is probably the most high-profile content that has been made. Others have not been on the same scale,” Girish Menon, who tracks media and entertainment for KPMG, was quoted saying in an interview.
So, what is it that makes the likes of Sacred Games resonate with the Indian audiences? The New York Times, for starters, has praised the alternating styles of Sacred Games, writing in a review: “The combination of dark humour and operatic violence may call to mind Fargo; the slightly hyperbolic characterisations and stylised dialogue are akin to those in Luke Cage.”
Based on a namesake novel and co-directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, this Anurag Kashyap masterpiece stars Saif Ali Khan as Inspector Sartaj Singh, who stumbles upon a criminal mastermind Ganesh Gaitonde’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) calamitous ploy that threatens to destroy all of Mumbai. Radhika Apte also stars as a RAW agent in this series. But the cherry on top here is undoubtedly, Cuckoo, its gorgeous transgender heroine. In her dazzling dress, the quintessential gangster doll, played by Kubbra Sait, is an alluring dream to Nawaz’s sordid Gaitonde; she possesses what he describes as “Cuckoo Ka Jadoo” – a magical cure to all his woes.
So far, Indian audiences have been subject to enormously insensitive portrayals of transgender characters onscreen where they have either been reduced to comic relief rudiments or are just plain evil. Sacred Games, thus, is delectably different, sincere and sensitive in its portrayal of Cuckoo as a transgender. Her gender identity is an important part of who she is, but like everyone else, she is also a lot many things beyond her gender identity.
In case of Lust Stories, however, what hits one hard, and hard in the face is perhaps how the accounts shatter the Indian silence on sex. It drives home how the feeling of lust is not exclusive to men. As The Guardian puts it: “This is the summer the vibrator arrives in Bollywood. No woman in the 105-year history of the Hindi film industry has ever pleasured herself. But this month, in the blockbuster Veere Di Wedding and Netflix’s Lust Stories, no fewer than three women are featured in onanistic embrace.” If nothing else, the film at least educates and attempts to initiate discussion in the still-maturing public sphere of India and its diaspora around the world.
Hopefully, contents and master-class storytelling as these are here to stay, especially with Netfix having recently announced the adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s multiple-award winning novel Midnight’s Children for screen. Selection Day, based on Aravind Adiga’s novel about cricket and corruption, is also in the works. Then there is Ghoul – the first Indian original horror story – set for an August 24th release. Based on Arabic folklore, Ghoul is set in a covert detention centre and follows an interrogator who arrives at the facility to discover that some of the terrorists held there are not of this world. Starring Radhika Apte and Manav Kaul, the series is a co-production between Blumhouse Productions, Ivanhoe Pictures and Kashyap’s Phantom Films.
Sacred Games is facing a legal petition in India (of course) over the removal of certain content from the web series on the grounds of insulting Rajiv Gandhi. Breaking his silence, Rahul Gandhi has tweeted: “BJP/RSS believe the freedom of expression must be policed and controlled. I believe this freedom is a fundamental democratic right.”
“My father lived and died in the service of India. The views of a character on a fictional web series can never change that,” he added.