On July 6, Netflix established itself as a prime player of the Indian entertainment scene with the streaming of its magnum opus, Sacred Games. An adaptation of Indian author Vikram Chandra’s eponymous novel, the series’ cast boasted of big timers like Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Radhika Apte, with directorial auteurs Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap helming it. Post release, as we know it, is history: with the series exceeding all expectations and quickly rising to be the top trending searches of IMDb, with international press like The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter proclaiming that the series was an official introduction of the new Indian cinema on a global stage. Consequently, Netflix rose in popularity among the Indian masses and took an active interest in producing more of Indian stories, in addition to renewing Sacred Games for 3 more seasons.
During instances as such, always, numerous disparate factors seem inter-related and work together for a phenomenon to happen in the entertainment business. Sacred Games’ massive success can be attributed to many such determinants. A quick research on the subject is enough for a casual viewer to see them: tenacious vision of the show-runners to show Mumbai underworld in all its glory (read: gore); the firm base provided by Vikram Chandra’s novel; strong performances; gripping screenplay; tacitly employing local Mumbai lingo to furnish some of the most scathing dialogues ever; assured directing hands of Mr Motwane and Mr Kashyap, all come together to provide 8 episodes of pure cinematic delight. However, there is one aspect of Sacred Games that makes it the blockbuster it is, that is often overlooked by audiences and mainstream media alike: its tribute to the niche and mostly forgotten genre of neo-noir. In fact, the entire series plays as a homage to it.
Before understanding the Neo-Noir, one has to look at Noir, which, in French means ‘black’. Noir is the trend, which essentially involves a genre of crime film characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. Dominating Hollywood from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, these movies were characterised by their stylised direction, twisted storytelling, moral ambiguity, seductive dames, bleak commentary on modern society, blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, and mainly, its unique motion photography. Back in the day of grayscale photography, much care was taken in such films to play with light and shadows which posited on the thematic elements of light and dark to produce an enigmatic scene on film. Having its roots in the German expressionist photography, many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the Hardboiled School of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression. All-time greats like Orson Welles and Howard Hawks ruled this era of Hollywood, with evergreen movies like The Big Sleep (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958), which still stand the test of time with the least or no effort.
With the onset of Technicolor, and time, evolved the vision of filmmakers too to match the changing trends. John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) can be seen as classic examples of post-greyscale noir, an interim period between the Noir and the Neo-Noir, which retained all the former’s quintessential characteristics while being shot in Technicolor.
Source- A still from Blood Simple
Neo-Noir is the more recent and contemporary revision of this tradition. Post-New Hollywood movies like Lawrence Casdan’s Body Heat (1981), Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984), and Curtis Hanson’s instant classic LA Confidential (1997) paved the way for Neo-Noir. The relaxation in storytelling conventions, the subversion of accepted norms, the directors’ attitude to constantly stand-out, along with the technical finesse were the cornerstones that marked this era. Needless to say, this fertile phase produced some great movies—some cult classics, and some instant ones—and provided an average moviegoer with some of the most enigmatic, enriching, and satisfying cinematic experiences ever.
Recently, I saw myself going through all these emotions during binging Sacred Games. Aesthetically, it is a neat show: a candy for the eye, which was pretty evident from the first shot. But, I was eventually drawn in when the shots of Mumbai thematically reflected those of Los Angeles in William Friedkin’s much underrated neo-noir classic To Live and Die in LA (1985). The usage of different lenses to signify the different tones of Sartaj’s and Gaitonde’s stories, enigmatic lighting to depict the surreal world of Bombay, excellent production design, the agreement of shots with the elements of the script, are all gauges of the minute care taken by the crew, and they must be congratulated for their effort. For in these times, when the scene of Indian cinema—more specifically, Bollywood—is inundated increasingly with nonsensical plots, glittery photography, and hapless direction, the success of Sacred Games surely seems like a breath of fresh air.
By Harsha Raman