Telecoms & IT

Sacred Games

Netflix stakes its India claim

Netflix takes aim at the Indian market with a fresh and ferocious first start.

Following up on a string of major successes in Israel (Fauda, 2016), Spain (Casa de Papel, 2017), and Germany (Dark, 2017), this summer Netflix embarked upon its most ambitious foreign project to date: the launch of its first Netflix original from India, Sacred Games.

Based on Vikram Chandra’s eponymous 2006 novel, it is a sweeping smorgasbord of sex, political intrigue, and near-gratuitous violence set in the underworld of Bombay from the 1980s to the present.

Tracing the fortunes of mafia boss Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an irreligious man who fancies himself a demi-god, and Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), a humble, hardworking, and slightly husky beat cop whose wife has just left him, Sacred Games is less a ‘love letter’ to Bombay than an irrevocable, gore-tastic literary gauntlet being thrown down.

Love her or not, it says, you will fear and respect Bombay.

The show opens when Gaitonde, a most-wanted criminal overlord who had disappeared from sight for 15 years, tips off Singh, a lowly and slightly depressed beat cop with nothing but a burglary arrest to his name, that all of Bombay will be destroyed in 25 days.

Why he offers up this extremely pressing information is as much a mystery to the latter and his colleagues as it is to the audience.

But throughout Singh’s struggles to decipher Gaitonde’s message, the viewer is taken on a rough and tumble ride through the chaotic political and demographic development of India’s most dynamic city over the last quarter of a century.

Too hot to hate

Despite outcry at the admittedly liberal display of sex and violence in the series (distributed online, it does not fall under the rather prurient Indian film censorship board)—and at least one lawsuit over the show’s depiction of the late prime minister Rhajiv Gandhi—the show has been a huge hit in India.

Leading Pakistan English-language dailies such as Dawn have also been urging their readers to watch it. And though Netflix does not release viewership figures, there is good reason to think the entire English-speaking world could be next.

The Economist gushed that it “announces the arrival of ‘Golden Age’ television to the Indian market,” while The Guardian said it might very well “kickstart a whole new TV genre (Bolly noir?)” from its script, which is “bristling with lyricism, and an intriguing air of vibrancy and originality.”

Though the Americans have yet to catch on—the New York Times called it “entertaining, if not entirely satisfying”—there is still reason to think they might.

The show’s combination of stylized violence and intriguing take on the political roots of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed offer a fresh, if unsparing, portrayal of some of the thorniest issues of our day.

Indeed, for those inclined to see the hand of profit and the lust for power behind many of the world’s great religious conflagrations, Sacred Games is a tonic.

A plan for all seasons

It is also just the start of much bigger effort by Netflix to crack one of the world’s largest ‘untapped’ markets. Indeed, though streaming services only cater to less than a quarter of the 800 million Indians who watch TV each day, they have seen a huge uptick in recent years.

With the total streaming market expected to grow from USD22.7 billion today to USD31 billion by 2020, according to Reuters, the competition is steep. Local provider Hotstar, for example, launched barely 3.5 years ago, already enjoys some 150 million active monthly viewers and 70% of market share. And it is but one of 35 local streaming options launched since 2015 alone.

Netflix, on the other hand, which launched in India in 2016, had less than a million monthly viewers in the country before launching Sacred Games (and ‘only’ 125 million in the 190 countries where it is available).

Yet if their recent flurry of investments in the country are anything to go by, that may soon change.

Not only has Sacred Games already been given an enthusiastic green light for a second season; this year alone Netflix has launched an additional five original Indian series (meaning they are produced and distributed solely through Netflix).

Though the company has not released expenditure for each show, there is no doubt India accounts for a sizeable chunk of the USD8 billion it set aside for original development in 2018 alone.

This includes a much-anticipated adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children; a reality series following a famous cricket team; a multilingual spy thriller based on Bilal Siddiqi’s eponymous 2015 novel The Bard of Blood; and a newly released horror show, Ghoul, featuring one of Sacred Games’ stars, the much-beloved Radhika Apte.

Jinn and tonic

In a bold and, to the author’s knowledge, unprecedented move, Netflix has even taken to advertising for Ghoul through a mass campaign of painting cryptic blood-red insignia over its own Sacred Games billboards throughout the country.

First thought a surprisingly uniform act of vandalism, the Ghoul campaign was merely hinting at the mysterious ubiquity of the jinn, or demonic phantom, that lies within us all. Taken from Arabic folklore, the ghoul (jinn) can assume a human form when a willing host calls upon it in exchange for their soul.

Whether Ghoul will receive quite the acclaim that Sacred Games did remains unclear. Even for those, such as your correspondent, who cannot appreciate the latter’s intricate meditation on Hindu mythology, its searing lens on corruption, caste, gender, and religious tensions has still set the standard for the time being.