Much Before Netflix’s Sacred Games, There was Powder

Pop Culture

Much Before Netflix’s Sacred Games, There was Powder

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Netflix’s Sacred Games, directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, has been the darling of the Indian internet ever since it debuted on Friday. And why not? The series with excellent production values, star writers, A-list actors, and the country’s finest technical team, does complete justice to Vikram Chandra’s sweeping novel. And while at it, it makes India look really good on the world entertainment map.

But eight years before Sacred Games saw light of day, another show with smaller names and a considerably modest budget made a quiet claim as perhaps the first global limited series to come out of India. Oddly enough, it was also an ode to Mumbai’s underbelly.

Atul Sabharwal’s Powder released at a time when saas-bahu sagas were at their peak and synonymous with Indian television. It’s imperative to note this cultural milieu in which the series was greenlit, to truly appreciate something as bold – dare I say bolder than Sacred Games – way back in 2010. Only because it was what studio executives considered anti-primetime TV.  

Powder is an understated police procedural, and featured Pankaj Tripathi as Naved Ansari, the drug kingpin whose ghost-like existence ensures that there are no records available about him. He’s chased by Usman Ali Malik (Manish Chowdhury) and his motley crew of cops from the Narcotics Control Bureau and the show dedicates itself to the gritty reality of not just the underworld but also the people responsible with its policing.

Just like Sacred Games, Powder also cleverly breaks down the corruption chipping away at our country’s bureaucracy and the police forces’ tendency to break more rules than any criminal.

Seen through the eyes of Malik, a conflicted top cop of NCB — as flawed a hero as Sartaj Singh — the show invites us in with a delicious bit of detail. As we soon learn, Malik’s fervent obsession to nab Ansari stems from a personal connection: Both of them grew up in the same slum, their lives intertwined. It’s their shared history that elevates the usual cat-and-mouse game to a fierce conflict between two distinct personalities, who, despite fighting on the opposite sides of the law, embody similar beliefs.

Powder brings this across by ambitiously affording its villain Ansari, who used to be a police informer, the search for redemption. National Award-winning actor Pankaj Tripathi’s (who coincidentally also features in Sacred Games and is no longer an unknown name) restrained yet menacing performance is haunting, if not the best on Indian screens at the time. Ansari is as brutal and heroic a character as Ganesh Gaitonde and Tripathi channels the inner tumult of the dreaded gangster with his blood-shot eyes and steely aggression. Like Gaitonde, the focus of his story was also personal: Ansari’s relationship with his wife and younger brother bolsters his life and the proceedings, giving him the same poignant depth as Gaitonde’s love for Kukoo.

Just like Sacred Games, Powder also cleverly breaks down the corruption chipping away at our country’s bureaucracy and the police forces’ tendency to break more rules than any criminal. Interdepartmental rivalry assumes priority and is the reason why the NCB views the Anti-Narcotic Cell and the Customs Department as their “sautela bhai” and vice versa. Instead of working in tandem, they actually work with the sole intention of outperforming the other and unknowingly slow down the proceedings – whether it is their fight over jurisdiction or the credit their respective organisation is bestowed in a newspaper report.

But the most fascinating aspect of the show is its female protagonist, Brinda Sawhney (Geetika Tyagi), a junior investigating officer. Like Radhika Apte’s Anjali Mathur in Sacred Games, even Sawhney struggles for credibility in a world populated by men, a world as deeply chauvinistic as RAW. The show emphasises on the fact that Sawhney has no other option but to work doubly hard and prove herself at every moment just to earn her place in her own team. The character was inspired by a real life IO named Kanta Tejwani, and according to Sabharwal, Powder was initially pitched as a show with “a strong female protagonist in a very male world of law and crime.”

Powder too is embroiled in the underbelly of Mumbai, its coexisting humanity and brutality. But most importantly, Powder, like Sacred Games stands out because it offers you no villains – just characters of cinematic brilliance, depth, and complexity through whom the show addressed the larger issues of the time.

The striking similarities in the narratives between the two shows go on. Just when you begin thinking of Powder as the poor man’s Sacred Games, you realise it released a good six years before platforms like Netflix and Amazon gave free reign to directors, free of any censorship.

Powder brings this across by ambitiously affording its villain Ansari, who used to be a police informer, the search for redemption.

Image Credits: Netflix

As a show that aired on a national channel, Powder had to adhere to the usual standard network protocol, which meant that unlike Sacred Games, it could have no nudity, sex, or even a throwaway cuss word. The team had to work around a budget of ₹5 crore for a set of 26 episodes, which in 2018 seems just about enough for the production of one.

At a time when Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi dominated national attention, Powder, a show ahead of its time, died a quiet death on Indian TV after just one masterful season due to “poor ratings”. It’s precisely why the script had been rejected by Star Plus in 2002 for being “too steeped in research”. Sabharwal’s refusal to rewrite the script also set in motion a ripple effect : It led to YRF finally commissioning it in 2007. And the show going on air three years later and attaining a cult appeal. It finally came full circle when Netflix acquired Powder for its Indian catalogue last year.

I also like to believe that Powder may have played its part in helping Sacred Games and its creators to push the boundaries of realism and cinematic honesty. Granted, Powder lacked the powerful superstructure that Vikram Chandra gave the creators of Sacred Games, or its technical brilliance, and the luxury of superimposing religious symbolism as a throbbing undercurrent in the narrative. But as a commentary on the plurality of Mumbai and India, Powder remains just as powerful.

Go watch.