“Bollywood” and “noir” aren’t two words you expect to see together, but in the last year, a deluge of Bollywood-made shows that have rushed onto our screens can only be described as such. The genre is by no means new to the Indian palate—the 1950s and 1960s saw several Bollywood-made noir films, many of which were adaptations of Hollywood ones. The most prominent of these is, arguably, Baazi, a 1951 crime-thriller inspired by Gilda.
The difference in the recent surge of Bollywood noir productions, however, is that they are uniquely Indian. Shows like Mirzapur, Sacred Games, and Delhi Crime—all of which are only available on streaming platforms Netflix and Prime Video, so as to bypass stringent rules on networks—are but a few in a wave of crime shows that are currently sweeping through India.
And just as classic noir has its roots in hard-boiled detective novels from the Great Depression, so too does Bollywood noir in India’s ongoing crime surge and weak attempts at remaining a democracy. Noir storytelling, with its cynicism, extensive plots, well-thought-out backstory, and quiet existential philosophy, is well-suited for the present times.
Though I didn’t live in India long as a child, when I moved back a year ago, it became evident that the India I left and the one I came back to are two separate places. The one I live in now is a paradox of dualisms: it is booming but tired, crowded but lonely, richer but greedier, and a secular democracy that doesn’t believe in tolerance.
Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name, begins when a Sikh cop named Sartaj Singh receives an anonymous phone call from an infamous Bombay gangster named Ganesh Gaitonde. Gaitonde’s last words, just before he kills himself over the phone, suggest that something big will happen in Mumbai in the next twenty-five days. The series follows Sartaj and a RAW agent (Research and Analysis—India’s equivalent of the CIA), as they uncover new depths of corruption within the city, one thing becomes evident—things are always worse than they seem.Noir storytelling, with its cynicism, extensive plots, well-thought-out backstory, and quiet existential philosophy, is well-suited for the present times.
Narrated by Gaitonde in varying timelines, the storyline is peppered with the many realities of what it means to be Indian, including a markedly cynical approach from Gaitonde. The show opens with a dog dropping down from the roof of an apartment building, thudding onto the asphalt in front of school children waiting on the bus. Gaitonde narrates: “Do you believe in God? … God doesn’t give a f*ck.”
As we delve into his backstory, we learn that Gaitonde’s father was a poor priest. To pay bills, his mother would sell her body without her husband’s knowledge. By the time he reaches Bombay in the 70s, Gaitonde’s cynicism has escalated: After briefly working at the ultra-religious Hindu Hotel, which serves pure veg food, he comes to the realization that religion, not money, is the root of all evil.
Later, when Gaitonde forms his crew, he has members from all realms of Mumbai society—Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, and women; his girlfriend is transgender, a fact the show chooses to accept as normal, rather than exoticize. When a far-right politician comes to him, asking for donations, Gaitonde makes one thing clear: “I may be a bad guy, but I’m not like you.”
It is this combination of backstory, pessimism, and self-fulfilling prophecy that makes Gaitonde as a character, but also the show as a whole, quintessentially noir—and, unboastfully, quintessentially Indian, too.
With the 2019 election securing the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) a landslide win, I can’t help but see the importance shows like this one play in the lives of the everyday Indian. They don’t just serve as a form of escapism; rather they’re deeper expressions of and for the disenfranchised, outlets for the frustrations of those liberals and intellectuals who can’t see sense in the policies of a party that pushes faith nor a party that makes sense on paper but has a history of corruption and poor governance.
Gaitonde summarizes the state of Indian politics aptly when he says, “I thought if the prime minister was dishonest, how could I walk down the straight path?” Gaitonde instead realizes that “drugs, guns, and violence are small time business. The real business is politics.” He then decides to expand his garbage business into an empire, expanding into drugs, guns, and politics—and because Gaitonde, unlike the politicians, is not a hypocrite, we, as viewers, can’t help but sympathize with him just for his willingness to see, and say, the truth.
Meanwhile, Delhi Crime, a fictionalized version of the 2012 gang rape that made headlines globally, emphasizes the extent to which the personal and political overlap in the Indian legal system in an entirely different sense. The show features Shefali Shah as Vartika Chaturvedi, based on real-life Deputy Commissioner of Police, Chhaya Sharma, as she and her team go about finding the six men involved in the incident.
In truly Indian fashion, the vast majority of police, with the exception of Chaturvedi and her task force, are caricatured as plump, lazy men with a poor work ethic, hellbent on avoiding paperwork of any sort. Budgetory constraints result in routine power cuts. Police officers’ uniforms can’t afford the luxury of bulletproof vests. This is, we’re reminded time and again, a country of over a billion people with a disproportionate number of law enforcement officers: for every 100,000 people, there are 150 cops.
As far as politicians, activists, and the media are concerned, police aren’t doing enough: they aren’t solving this case fast enough, being harsh enough with their suspects, or answering questions with enough care. Still, as the suspects are rounded up one by one, one can’t help but empathize with the police in question. The show tells us there are no protocols in place for dealing with a crime quite like this one—especially when it makes international headlines. Combined with the recent surge of mainstream fake news and political pressure to portray the capital city a certain way, i.e., as one which is safe for women, the stakes for the investigators are high, and the mood (both in terms of morale and cinematography) is low and dark.
As the five-day investigation speeds on, peppered within its narrative are the day to day hypocrisies of modern Indian life: religious and god fearing, but not always ethical and law abiding. Buses are plastered with “Swacch Bharat” (Clean India) campaigns, but the cleanliness doesn’t apply to people’s thoughts and actions, much less the garbage on the streets. Nor does an idol of Shiva on the dashboard of the bus in which the rape and mutilation occurred deter the six men from going through with the crime. In their words, they “only raped her.”
One attacker goes as far as attempting to commit suicide, using a pin he finds in the holding cell. With his blood, he smears a message on the wall: “Ma, please forgive me.” While he is attended to by paramedics, he justifies his actions saying he is sure his mother is dead. “She’d have heard the news and killed herself, I just know it,” he sobs to an officer. Despite the same message in many a mafia movie, it is almost impossible to reconcile that someone who committed such vicious act is a son—and a son who cares about his mother, at that.
Lead investigator Chaturvedi and her daughter Chandni—a Delhi school girl who wants to go to university in Canada – attempt to reconcile their need to feel safe with an acknowledgement of reality. While Chaturvedi asserts that things are okay, and what Chandni is seeing on the news is being “blown out of proportion,” (a term that most upper middle-class Indians will use to describe the media) Chandni retorts that even if half of what is being reported is true, things are anything but okay.
This tiny exchange is echoed throughout the show. The darker the instance being described, the more likely the audience—and indeed, the everyday Indian—is to hear, “tension mut lé” (meaning, “don’t stress”) and “they’re doing the best they can.” Regardless of what is happening, those two Indianisms are held firm. Just as Indian media is villainized by politicians and the police and vice versa, we’re reminded to not take things “too” seriously and that the people we have in power are doing the “best” they can.
A quiet scene in Sacred Games between Sartaj and Constable speaks to the gap between what is necessary and what is possible, what is wanted and what is tolerable. Sartaj, scoffing at beach sweeping volunteers, says, “They think if you clean the beach every day, it will become clean. Clean today, and the sea brings ten times more garbage the next day. We catch crime and go home at night, and the same crime starts over the next day.” Katekar replies, “Yes, but sir, it’s clean today. That’s enough.”
Here lies the question at the heart of the show: Is it enough? And who gets to decide what “enough” is?
Mirzapur, in which two seemingly innocent brothers, Babblu and Guddu, are forced to join a small-town mafia, ponders this question further. As the brothers work for the don, Akhandanand Tripathi—a man whose family has made its money dealing drugs, guns, and carpets—they find themselves in a grey area, where they are neither criminals nor civilized members of society, pulled further and further into the don’s most illicit dealings, and yet paradoxically inspired by earning his trust. Eventually, the amalgam of the two brothers ends up as a single, typical noir anti-hero: hard-boiled, misunderstood victims of circumstance.
What makes Mirzapur interesting, however, is not the intricacies of mafia power, but rather its sad but realistic portrayals of life in smaller Indian towns. Everything from female harassment being marketed as romance (thanks to Bollywood movies), to child labor, to rural poverty and extreme inequality, is covered in aching depth, albeit in the background. Openness to new communities quickly turns to exploitation. When Tripathi wants to increase his gun sales, Bablu advises him to hire women and children: They’re better workers, he says, with nimble hands, and won’t smoke around all this gun powder—it’s win-win. Later, to increase hashish sales, Bablu suggests making use of the much-abused hijara community (trans and eunuch peoples who identify as female or non-binary).Where Bollywood was once exclusively about happy endings and vivid colors, a la the right-winged BJP, its new age of noir is as cynical and skeptical as today’s leftist Indian.
Both in Hindu mythology and philosophy, hijaras are considered sacred; as having been chosen by God. In mythology specifically, they were, due to their physical strength, often employed as guardians for queens and princesses. In reality, the vast majority of India’s hijaras earning money through begging, prostitution, or collecting money for blessings when a child is born. As a result of all this, Bablu argues they have a wide network which will make them excellent dealers.
The flipside of this phenomenon—of the power and prowess of transwomen—is explored in Sacred Games. When Gaitonde gets it into his head that the secret to success is stealing Kukoo from his rival, “Kukoo ka jadoo” (“Kukoo’s magic”) is his only focus. As the two characters get to know each other, they begin to fall for each other, and once Gaitonde discovers that she is trans, he, unlike the rest of his posse, isn’t deterred by her reveal. Quite the contrary, in fact: Gaitonde places Kukoo on a pedestal so high, that her purpose—or her “magic,” rather—is deemed more potent as a result of her being trans. Kukoo, meanwhile, believes her “magic” has failed due to Gaitonde discovering her identity (his first business venture after meeting her fails).
While Kukoo reasons that her “inability” to give Gaitonde children and the future he wants with her, she believes that she, herself, is the reason for his downfall. It later becomes evident that her “magic” isn’t just used by Gaitonde; it is abused as a means of power by his rivals, too: To have Kukoo is to have power. She, herself, is a plaything to the men who want her magic.
In a country where Hindu nationalism is on the rise, this duality—of attitude and religious culture—doesn’t just clash, it explodes. While Hindus are constantly reminded that Hinduism is a religion of peace by fanatics and moderates alike, Bollywood noir questions the extent to which this is truly believed. As lynchings against minorities, increased censorship, and religious legislation (including the controversial ban on beef, in particular) increase, it’s not mere coincidence that these shows are disconnected from mainstream Bollywood.
Bollywood is one of the few places in India where the Muslim minority isn’t just respected but revered. While A-listers who fit the Indian Hindu mold take selfies with Modi, it’s evident that the Khans (Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Amir Khan, and Saif Ali Khan—who stars in Sacred Games) haven’t been quite as open with their political leanings.
If the rise in noir-esque shows—gritty and gruesome, but stylized—represents one thing, it’s that there’s been a dramatic shift in how audiences accept or challenge mainstream narratives. Where Bollywood was once exclusively about happy endings and vivid colors, a la the right-winged BJP, its new age of noir is as cynical and skeptical as today’s leftist Indian.