After Vikramaditya Motwane worked with screenwriters on the adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games for a drama series, he proposed to Anurag Kashyap, co-founder of Phantom Films and a long-time collaborator, that they jointly direct it. Describing this offer as Motwane “dangling a chocolate-dipped strawberry” before him, Kashyap confesses that he “gobbled” it up. Kashyap — who was always fascinated with this saga about Mumbai’s underbelly that pits Sartaj Singh, a cynical police officer (played by Saif Ali Khan), against Ganesh Gaitonde, a mafia overlord (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) — dived into the making of the show as soon as he wrapped up his last movie, Mukkabaaz (2017).
Motwane’s decision to have two directors for the series lies in the belief that two “distinct” voices were essential for this dark drama. “We shot the world of two lead characters, Singh and Gaitonde, separately. It was bit of an experiment to shoot our individual portions and put it together on the editing table,” recalls the Bhavesh Joshi Superhero director. While Kashyap shot “the noir portion” with Siddiqui, Motwane helmed the storyline revolving around Khan’s character. “The only difference for me this time was that I was looking for someone else’s approval,” says Kashyap, in a lighter vein, as he keeps calling Motwane “boss”.
Kashyap and Motwane, who set up Phantom films in 2011 as well as collaborated on movies such as Lootera (2013), Ugly (2014), Bombay Velvet (2015) and Udta Punjab (2016), believe that they understand each other “by default”. “Working together on Sacred Games was not a complicated process. Our roles were cut out and we were working separately. I just shot my portions and the editing choices were made by Vikram, editor Aarti Bajaj and writer Varun Grover,” says Kashyap.
The process of making the Sacred Games series — which is the first original series of India for Netflix — started in 2014 when Motwane met the Netflix team during his visit to Los Angeles. “What was wonderful is that they wanted to do Sacred Games in the local language. Then, one thing led to another and the writing process led by Varun started,” recalls Motwane. He singles out “writing” as the biggest challenge. “It’s always a challenge to adapt a novel for screen, a visual medium,” he says. While both the directors are thrilled over Netflix launching the series in 190 countries on July 6, they are “quite anxious” over the viewers’ reaction. “The series can up the game for us as well as other Indian filmmakers,” Motwane adds.
Even though they have been in the field of filmmaking for over two decades, this is the first time they worked on a series. Kashyap, however, says that he looked at the series as a movie and “treated it like a movie”. Motwane explains that a series works because the viewers get caught up with the journey of its characters. “When you are working on a movie, you have to ensure that the journey of characters ends in two hours. Since the first season of this show ends in six-and-a-half hours, we have to understand the characters deeply to chart out their arc,” he says. While writers took care of this, during its making shooting in the real locations posed challenges. “Creating this period journey meant shifting from one location to another. Production-wise, that was a huge logistical challenge,” says the Gangs of Wasseypur director.
While the novel was set in 1993, in the show, they have changed it to 2004. Kashyap says: “I had read the book when it came out and spent one month on it. I remember the essence of it. For me, it was not very difficult to get into its world. My aim was to be true to the material given to me. Its author Vikram Chandra has read the script and watched the show. He has written amazing love letters to Vikramaditya after that. So, we are relieved.” While working together, do they, at any point, get on each other’s nerves? “We get on each other’s nerves when we are drinking together,” says Kashyap.
Keeping a straight face, Motwane says, “We got married and divorced very soon.” He adds, “When we are working, we will always be together. If we are hanging out together, then problems can crop up. With Ram Gopal Varma, it’s the opposite. I can never work with Ramu but we can be friends and drink together,” says Kashyap.