Already wrote my no spoilers review, I’m going to do a quick spoiler review here as sort of a catch all, and then do a bunch of tiny little episode by episode reviews so we can talk as we go along.
Fair warning, I completely lost track of the plot details somewhere along the way. So this is a big picture summary, not a “and then this clue led to that clue led to that clue” summary.
Present Day Radhike Apte-Saif Ali Khan Story:
Saif is a Sikh police officer in Bombay trying to be honest. He is under pressure from his supervisor Neeraj Kabi to lie about a shooting, and spends his days investigating petty crimes because he hasn’t managed to solve a case since catching a pickpocket years earlier. His marriage fell apart, the only friends he has are his mother and his assistant Jitendra Joshi. And then out of nowhere, he gets a phone call from Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a mysterious figure who knows everything about his life and claims to have been a friend of his father. Nawazuddin babbles on with stories of his life and Saif tries to trace the signal. He finally finds Nawazuddin’s hide out, breaks through the wall, and finds him just in time to see Nawazuddin shoot himself before he can tell what is the thing that is happening in 25 days, the terrible thing that will destroy the city. This conversation was overheard by Radhike Apte, an ambitious analyst at RAW who comes to Bombay and forces her way into the investigation. She also nags Saif into helping her investigation, which Saif is eager to do in order to find out what the connection is between Nawazuddin and his father. Saif follows a link from the dead woman found with Nawazuddin and discovers she was a high priced pimp, her clients being lowlevel actresses and models. Saif finds one of them, Geetanjali Thapa, a TV actress who is trapped in a relationship with the producer of her show and former Nawazuddin associate Jatin Sarna. Saif brings her to Radhike who convinces her to go to Jatin next time he calls and try to get information from him. Jatin traps her and plans to take her out of the country, Saif is furious with Radhike for letting her go and stops working with her, instead trusting Neeraj Kabi to help rescue Geetanjali. Radhike’s plan and Saif’s interfere with each other and Jatin and Geetanjali both die, the lead is gone. Radhike goes back to Delhi, only to return when she finds a new lead, identifies an assassin who killed a witness as an international terrorist. At the same time, Saif has made his own discovery partly thanks to the death of his assistant Jitendra Joshi in a random arrest that went wrong, he realizes that the popular actress Elnaaz Norouzi is another former employee of Nawazuddin’s former pimp. He goes to interview her and it leads him back to the same clues as Radhike, they work together again. They separate at a train station when Saif hops a train while Radhike holds off the gang. Saif is captured and tortured, his thumb cut off, but then rescued by Neeraj Kabi who seems to have finally chosen to support law and order no matter what. Meanwhile, Radhike has followed her lead to the assassin’s apartment where she sees plans of the city, but is shot before she can call in her lead. In the final episode, everything starts to be tied up, Saif learns how his father knew Nawazuddin and ties together the politician Girish Kulkarni and Nawazuddin and his hired assiassin. Until he finally has a realization that the TV Guru Pankaj Tripathi is the hidden hand he has been looking for, and goes back to investigate Nawazuddin’s hide out again to discover a fall out shelter under the floor, indicating a much larger attack than just the guns they have already found and seized. END SERIES 1
Past Nawazuddin Siddiqui Story:
Nawazuddin starts his life story in his phone call with Saif in the first episode, and his story continues after his death. While Saif is moving forward incrementally day by day in his investigation, Nawazuddin’s monologue covers decades of his life in leaps forward. Nawazuddin was the son of a Brahmin in a small town. His mother secretly slept with men for money while his father was making the rounds with his begging bowl. His mother and her lover were killed and his father taken to jail, Nawazuddin grew up on his own and landed in Bombay where he met Vikram Kochar and started dealing drugs for him. Eventually they ended up working for a gold smuggler, Nawazuddin killed him and stole his gold, which made his name in the city. He partnered with a jeweler to launder the money, and then found a smart tough older woman who gave him advice and helped him see the money in the trash mountain in their neighborhood and helped him viciously take over control of the neighborhood. Nawazuddin consolidates his power with the help of his first gang recruits, two Muslim brothers, and his next recruit, Jatin Sarna, a Hindu chauvinist. This is also the first time he runs afoul of Neeraj Kabi, then a lowly inspector and in the present day Saif’s boss. Nawazuddin next becomes rivals with another gangster “Issa” and in a first attempt to defeat him, steals his “lucky charm”, a bar dancer Kubra Sait. She goes with Nawazuddin willingly and his luck changes, he becomes the top power in Bombay. He allies with the Hindutva powers for the first time to help local politician Girish Kulkarni get elected by killing or beating the Muslims so they can’t vote. Tensions start to rise in his gang between the Hindus and Muslims. At the same time it comes out that Kubra is a transexual (or intersex? It’s a little unclear). Nawazuddin says he will stand by her, but she doesn’t care and still thinks she is bad for him, finally killing herself in the middle of an attack on them by Issa’s men. Nawazuddin is furious and goes to war with Issa. In the middle of it, he decides to get married and plans a big wedding with the help of his respectable fence. But on the wedding day, Issa ambushes the fence and kills him and his wife. The respectable bride backs out, and instead Nawazuddin decides to marry the tough maid Rajshri Deshpande who cared for him when he was sick. He can’t consummate the marriage until he learns who the mole was in his gang, his first recruit, the older Muslim brother. He kills him and kills his innocent younger brother as well, and then consummates the marriage and is now in love with his wife. Which just makes him more heartbroken when Issa attacks again and kills Rajshri. He goes wild, killing 80 innocent Muslims and burning down the neighborhood, and the police can’t ignore it. He is arrested and beaten and tortured in jail every day, which is how he meets Saif’s father, temporarily assigned to the jail to help Neeraj in “interrogating” him. Saif’s father is a decent man and feels bad for the torture Nawazuddin is going through and sneaks him food and a flashlight while he is in solitary. And finally, a phone, which let’s Nawazuddin talk to Pankaj Tripathi and start him on a new journey. And Nawazuddin confesses to Pankaj his original crime, he was the one who killed his mother and her lover, as a small child, and his father took the blame.
As I was watching this, I started to feel a bit like I had a superpower, like I could see the future and predict the next plot twist. And then I realized I wasn’t predicting plot twists, but rather Bombay history. I knew that Kubra Sait was going to be a transsexual or inter-sex because I had read Maximum City which talked about the real life transvestite top dance hall performer (transvestite, not transsexual, which I find much more interesting. It was just his job, he had a wife and a life back home. Too complex for this series I guess). I knew that the religious attacks were going to lead to a divide in the gang because that is what actually happened in the 90s between Dawood Ibrahim and Chota Rajan. Except in this, it is a Muslim who leaves the gang not a Hindu, and his nickname is “Badda” (big) instead of “Chota” (small). And I knew that Nawazuddin’s lengthy torturous time in jail would lead to him being saved by a Hindutva figure and learning to love and follow him, just like Sanjay Dutt.
What is really cool is that it shows the stuff from Bombay history that isn’t usually acknowledged. There is a comment about needing “25 years” to change things, which is a reference to both the 1993 riots (erased from history in most films) and an acknowledgement that the current people running the country are the same ones who created those riots. And it shows the combination of the wise religious leader, the political candidate, the police, and the bureaucrat, clearly referring to the way Bal Thackeray used his followers to control the city without ever running for office himself. These ideas are not fully explored here, but hopefully it will be addressed further in later episodes.
(Anyway, you don’t cast Pankaj Tripathi unless you are planning to do more with him)
I was also very aware that the details of this story came from someone who was truly knowledgeable about Bombay. Vikram Chandra, I don’t know a whole lot about. But I know he is Anupama Chopra’s and Tanuja Chandra’s brother, which means he knows all about the film industry. I know he co-wrote Mission Kashmir with Suketu Mehta, which means he was also friends with Rakesh Maria (Bombay’s top cop for decades). And got to have first hand accounts of all of Suketu’s investigations into the underbelly of the Bombay crime world for Maximum City. So I think we can more or less trust Vikram’s account of these things. Or maybe I just think that because I’ve read Maximum City and that is my main reference for Bombay crime, as it is for Vikram Chandra. Well, that and Sanjay Dutt, who he must also know thanks to Mission Kashmir and family connections. The Arthur Road jail experiences Nawazuddin goes through here felt familiar to me from Sanjay’s stories. A little more extreme, but still familiar. And of course ending in the same way, finding salvation and religion from a charismatic leader.
Most of the time Vikram kept the details but flipped the religion. Chota Rajan becomes Bada Badariya. Instead of the bomb blasts making Chota Rajan (supposedly) doubt his loyalty, it becomes killing of Muslims in the gang war that makes Bada Badariya doubt his. And Nawazuddin is arrested and held indefinitely without bail for killing Muslims, not for participating in the bomb blasts, as was much more often the case for gangsters. This last bothers me the most. The series makes a big deal about Nawazuddin killing random Muslims in the Muslim neighborhood and then setting it on fire, and of course the police would have to react and arrest him. But it skips past the actual Ayodha riots, during which 100s and 100s were killed and no one was ever arrested. Again, the details of that shameful part of Bombay history are hidden away, perhaps because they don’t fit the narrative of the rise of the Hindu don that this series wants to tell. There is a reference to it, politicians come to Nawazuddin and ask him to be their “Hindu general” for an upcoming battle and he throws them out. But then we never see that battle, never get clarification that they found another general to carry it out.
(For another version of the 90s Bombay gang war, there is Company, also on Netflix)
However, I will let it go, because we do get the earlier sequence in which Nawazuddin does agree to work for them and kills and terrifies Muslims so that they will not vote. That is the risky statement, the thing you aren’t supposed to say, that these riots are created in order to terrify voters and steal elections. And it is what I hope the series will return to as the story plays out, that Nawazuddin becomes the brutal arm of the political party, handing them power through violence.
I also hope we there will be some investigation of Saif’s religion. It is supposed to be “Sacred Games”, all about religion, but so far it is only the past sections and Nawazuddin’s journey as a former Brahmin’s son that has been explored. Saif’s Sikhism, so far, is only important in giving him a distinctive look. But he wears the kesh and the kara, his religion can’t be meaningless to him. Even the visual most have a purpose, Saif and his father standing out among all the other police with their proud turbans, and being the two honest policeman. At some point there must be an investigation of what it is about their Sikh identity that contributes to this, the Sikh philosophy or simply feeling like an “other” in the midst of all these Maharashtrian Hindu cops which makes it easier to go against the crowd.
In the same way, Neeraj Kabi’s chief assistant, Saif’s equal and rival on the police force, is a Muslim character. The only notable Muslim character in the present day. He doesn’t have much to do in these episodes besides get punched in the face by Saif, but surely they wouldn’t have made him a Muslim cop if they weren’t planning to explore that, in this world of Hindu extremists. And they cast Aamir Bashir, a known actor, in the role. He isn’t famous, but he is better than what I would expect for a character who mostly just stands there and says “yes sir”.
Unlike religion, the gender themes are fully explored in this group of episodes, and I am worried this will be the last we see of them. Radhike Apte is our one interesting female character, and she is killed. Which also, possibly, cancels out the interesting things about her. Her storyline was a desperate need to prove herself in the field, arguing she is only behind a desk because she is a woman. But then she went into the field and got killed, so maybe she wasn’t ready after all. Her character journey and meaning are erased retroactively.
The other female characters are well written and well acted, but still fall within familiar tropes. Kubra Sait specifically references Parveen Babi in Deewar as her ideal. And like Parveen in Deewar, or Rekha in Mukkader Ka Sikander, or any number of other loyal gangster moll characters, she ends up dying in order to inspire the hero to revenge. Add on her intersex or transsexual status, and the death becomes even more trite. And she is replaced by Rajshri Deshpande, playing the strong earthy Hindu wife, the one who gives encouragement and words of wisdom, before also being killed and inciting even more vengeance. And then in the present day we have Geetanjali Thapa who starts out a little interesting, and then ends up being yet another silent damsel in distress for Saif to rescue. Radhike’s character even calls out this trope, that he has to be the rescuer, and yet it still plays out. And we have Saif’s mother, giving words of wisdom and understanding. And his unseen ex-wife who he obsesses over as all troubled cops must obsess over their exes.
There’s also Nawazuddin’s female partner and advisor who, frustratingly, I can’t even find on the cast list so I have no idea who plays her! She starts out strong, but then slowly turns into less of a gangster partner and more of a mother figure, in the present day she is being called on to bring food to Jatin, ordered around instead of listened to. The focus of Nawazuddin’s story changes to his relationships with his male gang members instead of the woman who helped him found his power base.
The one remaining female character that seems to have a bit more bite to her is Elnaaz Norouzi. She plays a rising Hindi film actress, stuck in terrible movies produced by her co-star Karan Wahi’s father. She tries to get out, claiming she is offered a better part in Ranbir’s superhero movie (surprisingly specific, I’ll come back to that), but Karan blackmails her with his knowledge of her call girl past. And she uses that “savior” instinct to her own advantage, already a friend of Neeraj Pandi, she fakes a black eye and tells him it is from Karan, asks his help, and then frames Karan with a drug arrest, freeing herself. Just in time for Saif to come to her to look for information because he has recognized her from an old photo before nose job and other alterations and knows she used to be a call girl who might have known Nawazuddin. She is left behind by the plot after that, but I hope she comes back again, because she was a strong and interesting character.
(Also, she was in an ad campaign with Shahrukh! That’s cool)
And she was our tie to the film industry! There is surprisingly little about the film industry so far. There is an acknowledgement that the Ramayana TV serial helped spread Hindutva, but no talk (so far) about the ties between film and gangs in Bombay, or film and politics. And this is the area where I would assume Vikram Chandra would know the most, considering his family connections and that he himself co-wrote Mission Kashmir. What little is there, seems accurate. Actresses who came from nowhere and have a past as call girls, maybe kept working after their fame started as super expensive call girls. Obnoxious producer’s sons who keep getting stupid movies handed to them. And film stars volunteering to perform at police functions just to stay in their good graces and garner police favors.
I want more of this, more social details, because they are so very detailed. Which is fascinating because it also means this miniseries is firmly aimed at the Indian audience. Breathe, for instance, was a nice show with some little Indian touches, but overall felt the same as any other cop show. But this, this gets into the nitty-gritty that only the locals would fully appreciate. A Ranbir superhero movie mentioned as the Ranbir superhero movie is being filmed. Casually references without much detail to Shah Bano and Rajiv Gandhi and the Ramayana TV show, as though we all already know about them. Same for the bomb blasts, no details needed. And a casual reference to an old 26/11 injury that one of the police officer’s is struggling with. This goes far beyond the usual level of detail, to a place that only the Indian audience can fully appreciate. Those are just the mentions I caught, I am sure there are many other references I missed because I am not Indian.
This is exciting to me, because it means the message of this miniseries, the idea it is trying to sell of religion as a game that is controlled by the Hindutvas who want to destroy the country, is going to be seen and heard not just by outsiders, but by locals, the Indians back in India watching this series. It means that Netflix and Anurag Kashyap and Vikramadityan Motwane think the public is ready for and can handle this message. I don’t know if they will end up being right, but I hope they will be.
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