Netflix's first original Indian series is a game changer, say star and directors Saif Ali Khan, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane
Netflix sets its sights on the Indian television market with 'Sacred Games'
Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane are not your typical Bollywood directors. The pair have no shortage of Filmfare Awards on their shelves for domestic critical hits such as 2010’s Udaan, produced by Kashyap and directed by Motwane, but you’re just as likely to find them picking up gongs at Cannes or Venice. Udaan competed in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard sectionthe year of its release, while Kashyap picked up both a Fipresci Award and a Promising Future Prize at the same festival for 2015’s drama-romance Masaan.
The pair are regular collaborators, often producing each other’s films and also co-founding Mumbai-based Phantom Films production house. They are the leading lights of India’s small, but growing indie cinema scene, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Netflix approached them to co-direct its very first Indian original series, Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name.
Motwane hopes their latest project can fill a notable gap in Indian culture.
“We don’t really have good dramatic television,” he says. “It was really exciting for us to come in as film directors and bring that sensibility to something in the local language over one or two seasons. It’s also exciting to be on Netflix, where you’re not just for the local market, but you can show it to millions of people in hundreds of countries around the world,” he says.
The pair have assembled an all-star cast for the project, including Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte. Khan agrees that the new show will bring something different to Indian audiences: “It’s totally something new. No one really knows what the Indian market is ready for, but in terms of the sheer potential numbers, it’s very appealing, so I hope it’s ready for this,” he says.
The star adds that he does not follow shows aired on Indian TV, though he hopes the new show can raise the bar: “Personally, I don’t like watching Indian TV. It’s ruled by sponsors and the kind of things they come up with just don’t interest me,” he says. “As a film actor, I think a platform like this allows you to show off your talents, unlike TV. But it’s different to film too. I’d maybe compare it to a graphic novel – it has images and ideas that are presented in a different way to film or TV. On television, it’s kind of a negotiated experience with your family for a communal experience. In my head, this is a more individual experience – plugged in with headphones. And there’s no advertisements either – that’s a big difference both in terms of the experience itself and the content – with TV, you have sponsors dictating every little detail down to what colours people wear.”
While Khan hopes that audiences will find Sacred Games a different beast to the usual offerings on the small screen, he also says that as an actor, making the show was different to his film experience in many ways: “You have so much more time – you can walk up the stairs and linger, whereas in a film, it would just be in the elevator and the door opens. Much more time can be spent creating a mood and the pace is very different. At first, I wondered if it should be this way, but when I saw it, I realised it can be more artistic, you can take more time, have more interesting background music, everything is different.”
Even though Khan enjoyed having that extra time to build his character, he says that it was equally important not to spend too much of it on scenes for the sake of it. “It was a challenge, too. How do you keep it interesting all that time? I remember once seeing a TV crew filming outside a studio I was shooting in, and they did this incredibly long shot of a guy walking towards the camera. I asked the director: ‘Why so long?’, and he said: ‘Because I have to cut it to an ad in a couple of minutes.’ That’s not a place you want to be. It’s like an eight-hour movie that you want to keep as tight as possible.”
For the show’s directors, with the new format, they see potential to redraw the boundaries of Indian entertainment. Kashyap says: “Indie films do get made in India, but the problem is the middle man. You’ve always got cinemas, distributors and producers saying ‘don’t do this,’ and they want you to make more of the same. I’ve said for years that you should make the film for the audience and they will see it for what it is, and now with Netflix, we have that very direct relationship with the viewers. If we were starting to make our indie films now, we’d probably do it for Netflix.”
Motwane agrees, and hopes the new connection will bring wider audiences on a less “illegal” basis. “It’s a great time for this – it reminds me of when we first started making our films, and we just didn’t have the cinemas for it. We’d be screening at matinee shows with 10 people in the theatre, but we were still being voted the best and picking up awards,” he says. “Far more people have discovered our films through piracy or TV than in cinemas, and I’d just like to reach our audience in any way we can,” Motwane adds. He has a point – though as a self-professed “indie” filmmaker, he finds himself inadvertently caught up in the debate about whether Netflix is killing the opportunities for his films to be shown in cinemas; a debate that has seen none other than Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg attack Netflix for his belief that such streaming services are killing indie cinema, at least in cinemas per se.
Motwane appears fairly rational on this point, however: “I agree with what Spielberg said, and in principle, I would rather see the movies we make in theatres, but if we can’t get our movies in cinemas anyway, then we just want to reach as wide an audience as possible,” he says. “If some guy in Brazil wakes up tomorrow and wants to watch an Indian crime-thriller, he can. Previously, he’d have to pirate it or wait for a festival. All those boundaries are gone now.”
It’s certainly an interesting time for those who hope to make films with a little more depth than typical Bollywood fare. With local competitor Eros Now, a streaming offshoot of the 40-year-old Mumbai studio Eros International, having recently announced a US$50 million (Dh183m) plan to create its own original content, it will be interesting to see if Netflix’s own Hindi content can beat the locals at their own game.
Sacred Games is available in its entirety on Netflix from 11.01am on Friday July 7