UC Berkeley professor Vikram Chandra talks how his novel ‘Sacred Games’ turned into a Netflix series

Illustration of Berkeley professor and author Vikram Chandra standing before a bridge.
Lucy Yang/Staff

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“I’m a reclusive writer down to my bones,” said UC Berkeley professor Vikram Chandra in an interview with The Daily Californian. And he’s right — his literary career reflects this passion to an exceptional degree. Chandra not only teaches English, but also is a critically acclaimed author whose novel “Sacred Games” was adapted into a Netflix series. 

As the first Netflix original series made in India, “Sacred Games” has received wide recognition, including an Emmy nomination and a spot on the New York Times list of the decade’s 30 best international shows. “All of us involved, we’d never imagine that (the story) would have this type of response,” Chandra said. 

Published in 2006, “Sacred Games” is Chandra’s second novel. Both the movie and the novel follow two main characters: Sartaj Singh, a dispirited police officer, and Ganesh Gaitonde, an ominous gangster. In episode one, viewers learn that the city of Mumbai is in grave danger. And the plot takes off from there. 

The show did not premiere until 2018, but the original story had sparked the film industry’s interest long before then. “What happened with ‘Sacred Games’ is that there was interest in the book right from the beginning, even before the book got published,” Chandra said.

Before the third and final attempt to bring the novel to the screen, two previous attempts had fallen through. Netflix, however, was the one to execute the project in full. Netflix had “proven out this model of making what they called ‘local content for a global audience,’ ” Chandra said. It “uses local film companies, writers, actors and they make it in whatever language is local.”

Chandra, born in New Delhi, explained that the series is in Hindi, but different languages are still used in certain dialogues. This “is totally cool. That’s the way that Indian culture operates,” he said. 

Having grown up in Bombay, he explained that he comes from a “movie-obsessed culture.” Not only that, but he also comes from a family of well-respected professionals in the industry: His mother is a screenwriter, one sister a director, another sister a film critic and his brother-in-law the renowned producer Vinod Chopra. Chandra himself attended film school — but not for long. “I figured out I wasn’t built for film. … I dropped out and got an MFA in writing,” he said. 

Chandra may have chosen to work in writing over film, but his interest and background in the latter has not waivered in the slightest. In fact, the very theme of “Sacred Games” is the underworld of large-scale organized crime — which Chandra knows well because of its connections to the film industry, in which money-seeking gangs or so-called “companies” are serious business.

A producer would “get a call from one of these organizations, and they would basically ask you for protection money. You have to send (however) many suitcases of cash, or they will try and kill you,” Chandra said, who personally knows people who have received such extortion calls.

In writing “Sacred Games,” Chandra talked to sociologists, historians and cops. The policing world he wished to unpack grew only increasingly complex as he conducted research. The crime led to politics and politics to religion, and then to national intelligence agencies. “That’s how it became 900 pages,” Chandra laughed.

In terms of his collaboration with the production company, Chandra knew very well what he had signed up for. “When you sign on that dotted line, the adaption belongs to them. … When translating from a medium like a novel to a medium like film, you have to make huge leaps, and change it and transform it,” he said. Chandra was not involved in the actual screenwriting, but was in consistent communication with the producers as a consultant in regard to episode drafts, rough cuts and more.

“If you read both the book and watch the series, you see how different they are,” Chandra said, describing them as “two universes that are similar, but exist at an angle to each other.” 

One deviation, for example, is the character Kukoo. She is a transgender character who is briefly mentioned in just one paragraph of the novel, but was turned into a major character for the show adaptation. “The writers picked that up and turned her into a major character. That is the value of a collaborative enterprise in which people are feel free to make leaps,” Chandra said. 

He explains that the two seasons have done “fantastically well.” As of now, there hasn’t been any mention of whether or not there will be a season three. Artistically, Chandra said, the series works as is. The fans, however, are desperate to know what to make of the last episode’s brutal cliffhanger. 

Third season or not, Chandra is in awe of what “Sacred Games” has come to be. And throughout the process, he has exercised a great deal of patience and acquired much wisdom. “You can’t always anticipate what will happen,” he said. “Things have to come together at the right time.”

Kathryn Kemp covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kathryynkemp.