Vikram Chandra talks about Netflix’s Sacred Games (starring Saif Ali Khan)

It is indeed a very happy birthday for novelist Vikram Chandra, who turns 56 today. Netflix has announced only a week ago that Saif Ali Khan will play the lead in its original series based on Chandra’s award-winning Sacred Games.

When I met Vikram Chandra earlier this year, he had expressed full faith in the team behind the screen adaptation of his novel. A critically-acclaimed epic delving into Mumbai’s underworld, Sacred Games seems a propitious pick for Netflix.

Chandra spoke fondly of his bestseller. “Sacred Games was about crime. It was based on the SOP of police and went beyond a regular whodunit,” he said.

Nothing Sacred in This Game

Chandra shared, “Organised crime cannot exist without political cahoots. Sacred Games was a political novel as well. It also dealt with religion.” Chandra has always acknowledged Hussain Zaidi, a former investigative journalist, as his mentor and friend. Zaidi’s inputs on the underworld of Mumbai were invaluable for Chandra. His research, however, was not limited to that and the narrative of Sacred Games is a glowing testimony for that. “I spoke to a Mumbai top-cop about an encounter. He directed me to the intelligence agencies. Through my conversations, I found out how the ‘intelligence’ uses criminals for different purposes. Criminals come handy in establishing plausible deniability,” recounted Chandra.

Sacred Games certainly was not an easy write. Chandra took seven years to complete it. “Local occurrence can be a symptom of a larger geo-political struggle. Finding the architecture of Sacred Games took a long time. I had to achieve thematic and geographic unity.”

Fiction and Research

Sacred Games lures the reader into a very carefully crafted cultural context. How important is socio-ethnographic research for novelists? Chandra had his response ready. “For the fiction writers, the reader should not have to ask if the author did research. If the narrative is convincing this question will never arise”

A novelist has to be good at lying. Vikram Chandra, Novelist

He added further, “In good fiction, inner workings of processes are presented in a textured manner. But non-fiction can be supremely engaging. The Siege and The Exile by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott Clark are perfect examples of research plus narrative. The Exile presents Osama Bin Laden’s life post 9/11. We get a portrait of an international terrorist as a married man. We see him managing the family, fleeing, trying to dodge the bullet all the time. The narrative is intimate, moving and unusual. Nothing is made up.”

Antidote to Fake news

Good and honest research, however, goes beyond facilitating engaging narratives. Chandra explained, “A researcher’s integrity is an antidote to fake news. In the US, both sides of the political game are convincing and convinced that the other is biased. Press wildfire, fake manufactured news have pervaded the national discourse. The practices of production and consumption of news have changed.”

If somebody does a google search for 10 years hence, fake news can be used to construct a certain narrative . Wrong information can be used as historically documented evidence

Chandra’s explainer on the US scene can hold true almost verbatim for fake news manufacturing in India.

The Writer’s Bias

Talking of sides, narratives and counter-narratives, our conversation veered towards biases. Does a fiction writer judge his own characters? Chandra replied, “You can never get away from bias. I trained myself to stay unbiased. I present actions of my characters as they perceive themselves. It was easy to present Gaitonde as a bad man. But how does he sees himself? Nobody sees themselves as bad essentially.”

He continued, “A gangster sees himself as a revolutionary. My aim was to bring out the interiority of the characters. My wife once said, ‘I hate you for making me like Gaitonde.’”

What about Sartaj the cop, the character Saif Ali Khan is set to play in the Netflix series? He spoke after a brief silence. “People want simple moralistic approach towards fiction. How do you assess the bribe-taking Sartaj? I think neutrality is the key. It was important for me to allow space to the characters.”

His response brought the works of Emile Zola and other naturalists to my mind. “Yes, I like Zola’s layers of culture and how they interact with each other. The portrayal of interlocking centres of power. But I am different. The naturalists’ characters invariably move towards downfall, their characters make adjustments. While their characters may be damaged like mine, I don’t agree with the naturalists’ reductiveness. The characters have much more in them than comes out in their portrayal as psychological beings. We are dealing with men not machines.” Chandra neatly explained TS Eliot’s formulation of ‘tradition and individual talent’ through this response.

Not Afraid of Adaptation

How does he respond to talent in other fields? Does he believe that the talent in the world of TV will do justice to his prized piece of literature? Chandra responded nonchalantly.

“I understand that as a writer, I need to let go once I’ve agreed for the adaptation. Radical leaps are needed for cross-medium adaptations. I’m working as a consultant but that’s it. My mantra is ‘Shut up and get outta way. Trust the makers.’”

He added, “Maintaining control is childish. When your kid grows up, you let go of him. It’s a risk you take. We are in the golden age of television and I hope Sacred Games will do justice to it. Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films has done some good work in the past. I’m curious to see what they are going to do with my book.”

There is enough excitement around the Netflix series among fans, but what does Chadra think of it? “Netflix is roping in local producers for local consumption. It’s a great thing. This insistence on going local means that the characters of Sacred games are going to speak their own language. The series, in a way, goes a step ahead of the book.”

Chandra signed off by delicately piquing my curiosity about his upcoming work. “Well, I have started writing the new fiction. I don’t plan much ahead. I believe in discovery and not pre-planned engineering. No sense of what it’s gonna be.”

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