Sacred Games and the rising tide of India's cultural power

Image: Netflix

Image: Netflix

Modern India is far from the exoticised, dated country it is still often painted to be. With a population of 1.3bn, it boasts the largest democracy in the world, and with 50% of them aged under 25, it’s a country looking to the future.

As powerhouse Asian neighbour China continues to be censorship-crazed and the US is becoming increasingly isolationist, some have even suggested that India is poised to take the mantle of leader of the free world within the next century. Where it’s surpassed in military might, India boasts significant global influence through soft cultural power; most notably, via its film industry.

Colloquially known as Bollywood, the Indian, Hindi-language film industry is the biggest in the world (its scale becomes clear when you visit a cinema - the thousand-seater picture houses have the ability to bring major cities to gridlock on premiere nights). It employs over 250,000 people - many of them Westerners, arriving in their hundreds every year to get a break in the industry, its film output is three times that of Hollywood, and Bollywood stars are some of the highest paid globally (and are treated like demigods).

But India and its entertainment industry has become a new battleground for the streaming giants. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime have made statements of intent on the market through releasing their own original Indian content.

“Even we couldn’t have predicted the last two years of Indian internet growth,” Reed Hastings, Netflix chief executive, told a conference in Delhi this year. Describing how the company had amassed 125m subscribers, he added: “The next 100m is from India.” 

One original Indian Netflix series has generated particular excitement. Sacred Games is an adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name. From its first week, the gritty underworld thriller scored a 100 per cent ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while also becoming a hit with entertainment critics.

The series has been marketed with an awareness of its potential to cross borders and bridge the gap further between Bollywood and the West. Bollywood has mass following in China, Africa and, notably, the Middle East (where Bollywood Parks theme park in Dubai boasts 1.7m square feet of Bollywood-blockbuster-themed entertainment).

But in the West, the industry’s progress has been slower. Star of ABC thriller Quantico, Priyanka Chopra has crossed over from Bollywood to Hollywood but, on the whole, Bollywood has failed to recreate its domestic success in Western markets.

Much of this is down to the fact that Bollywood films are often seen as stereotypical and forced; even cheesy for the Western viewer. The films are generally around three hours long, but plots often lack subtlety.

In contrast to a world known to shy away from kissing scenes, Sacred Games – which has bypassed the heavy regulations of the Central Board of Film Certification in India as it’s distributed online – features full-frontal nudity in transgender sex scenes, visualises the Hindu-Muslim violent tensions of past and present and has even got into hot water with members of the Indian National Congress for the main character’s referral of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as a "p***y".

Despite the controversy, Sacred Games’ director Vikramaditya Motwane has expressed his shock at garnering a much wider audience than anticipated: “Mothers and mothers-in-law and aunties have gone and watched it ... I'm shocked at that. I was expecting that yes, younger people, cinephiles and people who are hooked to Netflix will watch the show.

“This, I was not expecting."

Netflix has prepared to take the series across borders with English, Spanish and Portuguese translations. It has also added a functionality innovation with the Indian market in mind. With internet connection – especially mobile phone data connections – being patchy at times across the country, Netflix has released Smart Downloads - a feature that automatically downloads episodes based on users’ previous viewing; this means there is reduced reliance on active internet connections to watch shows.

As Hollywood was the cultural amplifier of early 20th century America, raising its soft power to dominance, so could this new take on Bollywood be a boost for rising India. With Sacred Games, Netflix has cracked the old dam of India’s film regulation and both domestic and international viewers have lapped it up. As plans for a second series, along with other original content from both Netflix and Amazon Prime are on the way, that crack in the regulatory dam could be widening and on the other side of it, waiting to flood, is an Indian Ocean.

Tarek Chaudhury, Flamingo