Friday, May 27, 2011

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

Cover of Sacred GamesA vast range of classic and contemporary Bollywood films are alluded to over the course of Vikram Chandra's 950-page novel Sacred Games (HarperCollins, 2006). The cover of the paperback version reinforces the Bollywood connection: it features images of what look like Isha Koppikar from Don (2006) and (perhaps) Abhishek Bachchan from Dhoom (2004). The crime-movie references are highly relevant, because Sacred Games tells the story of small-time thug Ganesh Gaitonde's rise to become the ruthless, hyper-violent ruler of a criminal empire. Intertwined with Gaitonde's story is that of police inspector Sartaj Singh, who becomes involved in the investigation of Gaitonde's final days.

But to call Sacred Games a crime novel or thriller wouldn't convey the imaginative richness of Chandra's storytelling or the vividness of his descriptions of the streets and alleyways of Mumbai. We experience the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of daily life in the "maximum city" (to borrow the title of a book by Chandra's friend and collaborator Suketu Mehta), and encounter dozens of characters from chai-wallas to film stars. That narrative vividness is particularly apparent in a series of "Insets" that provide in-depth backstories for several of the characters. The insets also reveal some unsuspected ironies and surprising familial connections.

Chandra's own familial connections to Bollywood include his mother Kamna Chandra (writer for Prem Rog (1982), Chandni (1989), and 1942: A Love Story (1993)); his sister Tanuja Chandra (writer for Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), director of Sangharsh (1999) and Sur (2002)); his sister Anupama Chopra, writer of books on Sholay, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Shah Rukh Khan; and his brother-in-law Vidhu Vinod Chopra, writer/director/producer of Parinda (1989), 1942: A Love Story, and Mission Kashmir (2000).

Chandra himself contributed to Mission Kashmir, a film to which there are a number of explicit and coded references in Sacred Games. There are the name-checks of Jackie Shroff and Sanjay Dutt. There's that impossibly good-looking gigolo, who sounds like he's modelled on another hunky actor from MK: "He was tall, an inch or two over six feet, and had the smallest waist Sartaj had seen on  a man in a long while. He narrowed like an inverted triangle from the shoulders to the hips, and the quick travel from the gym-broadened shoulders to the absence of belly gave him the look of a cartoon figure" (p. 438). And then there's that morning when Sartaj sings a certain song in the shower: "Things were falling apart, but Sartaj stood in the shower and soaped his chest and sang Bhumro bhumro along with the radio from the apartment below" (p. 528):

Preity Zinta and Hrithik Roshan in a scene from Mission Kashmir.

In Sacred Games filmi songs, classic and contemporary, provide the soundtrack of the lives of cops and criminals alike, and the references will provide an additional level of pleasure for Bollywood fans. (At the back of the book Chandra has provided a glossary that identifies many of his references, plus a list of his favorite films.)

There is also some sly commentary on the film business: when Gaitonde finances a movie for Zoya Mirza, a strikingly tall Miss India turned gangster's mistress turned surgically-enhanced Bollywood star, he dreams big: "'The emotion of Mother India, the scale of Sholay, the speed of Amar Akbar Anthony. That's what we want'" (p. 676). What he gets is the generic thriller International Dhamaka, which contains "shooting and kissing and car crashes and tears and torn hearts" (p. 682)—and which flops.

Sacred Games could itself be made into a filmi thriller. But ultimately what makes it compelling isn't the mystery plot but the fullness and complexity of its characters and the messy, corrupt, unjust, violent but vibrant world in which they, like we, must live.

Vikram Chandra has his own website,, and there is also one for Sacred Games itself:

Update 5 June 2011: Since writing this post I've learned that Sartaj Singh first made an appearance in the story "Kama" from Vikram Chandra's 1997 collection Love and Longing in Bombay. In that story his divorce from his wife Megha is finalized, an event from which he is still recovering as Sacred Games opens.

I've also learned that there is 1999 movie starring Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna called International Khiladi which may be one of the models for International Dhamaka. International Khiladi is a crime/mob story, it features international travel (to exotic Canada), and lots of fight scenes, tears and torn hearts. Not to mention lady wrestlers! You can read a hilarious discussion of it on the Bollywhat? Forum here.


  1. I'm glad that you like this book. I hear echoes of Guri-ji Swami Shridhar Shukla in today's news about Hindu yogi Baba Ramdev gathering 40,000 people on a hunger strike to “protest government corruption,” with the inevitable police raid, tear gas, and arrest: Not so much an issue of life imitating fiction, as fiction wonderfully weaving imaginative visions of reality.

  2. Monsieur Lapin, many thanks for the link to the AP article. Yes, the news suggests that in India as in the US and elsewhere, religion and politics are inextricably intertwined. Chandra's apocalyptic guru indeed seems to be an "imaginative vision of reality."

    Thanks for your comment!