“Most of Sacred Games is tightly paced with sharp dialogue. The few times it slacks is when it is trying to give life lessons overtly,” writes Carol D’Souza.
Netflix’s Sacred Games explores the dynamics between power, politics and religion
Religion is essentially multipurpose. This virtue, one suspects, lends it versatility and longevity. Religion means different things to different people. It is a default background of life for some, a psychological necessity for some others and to many more religion is a front, a strategy. When a man thinks he is God, what, one wonders, is religion to him?
Netflix’s first original series in India, Sacred Games probes the mechanics of religion and power in Bombay, the city of dreams. Based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name, it was released on the streaming platform on July 6. Along with a tightly woven thriller plot, the show also attempts to expose the particular influence religion has on the Indian psyche and how it is successfully leveraged.
Vikram Chandra in an interview revealed that he started writing the book to figure out where the Bombay gangs got their money from and one thing led to another. The nearly thousand-page book explores in great detail the nexus between political leaders, the police, the entertainment industry and mafia.
Sacred Games is directed by the talented duo, Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap. The plot opens with Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), a Mumbai cop who is drawn into the investigation of the life and death of an underworld don Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
The Bombay of 1990s was a city that had a place and a job for everybody. But of course, some people are always more equal than others and often it is at this juncture, when one encounters inexplicable inequality and injustice that religion enters powerfully in a common man’s life. As Gaitonde’s wife Subhadra (Rajshri Deshpande) notes, religion is poor man’s salvation. Poor people know they are welcome in the house of God if not anywhere else.
Most of Sacred Games is tightly paced with sharp dialogue. The few times it slacks is when it is trying to give life lessons overtly. For instance, when Sartaj Singh and Katekar (Jitendra Joshi), his sidekick and constable, are sitting on the beach ruminating about the futility of cleaning, about dirt on the beach and crime in the city, both of which seem to replenish daily no matter how much one cleans, Katekar ends the sequence commenting, if not forever, at least it’s clean for today. One appreciates the lesson less because one sees it coming.
Along with the two leading men, commendable supporting performances provide the series a solid scaffolding. Malcom, a cold blooded killer played to the hilt by Luke Kenny; Cuckoo, a transgender and Gaitonde’s love interest played hauntingly by Kubbra Sait (of course, it is promising that Varun Grover, one of the writers of the show, has assured in an interview that the next time there is a transgender character and he has a say in casting he will strive to cast a transgender actor); and of course, Radhika Apte, who plays a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) operative Anjali Mathur. She successfully coveys her character’s goal oriented-ness and lack of inter-personal sensitivity. Though Apte, who is known for her strong roles, leaves an impression that she may be one of those performers who are shone better in dramatic light than the quiet brooding required of her at times in Sacred Games.
The series successfully incorporates socio-political commentary into the plot without jarring the viewing experience of an Indian viewer*. (*Subject to political inclination. Some people have been jarred.) A commendable thing about Sacred Games is that despite being produced by an international company with plans of airing the show internationally, Netflix’s first Indian series hasn’t been written with an international audience in mind. No historical reference is over-explained, no satirical remark is qualified. It may be apples and oranges to compare, considering the medium is different, but this point brings another creative work with a strong socio-political commentary to mind– Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The book’s narrative is liberally dotted with India’s political and social history but is written as if addressed to an unaware, foreign reader. For all the pleasure of reading Roy insightful prose, this leaves the local reader of the book feeling like one is being spoken to about oneself, a pitfall that writers of Sacred Games have successfully avoided.
“Kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki apun hi bhagwaan hai.” (“Sometimes I feel like I am God.”), voiceover of a dead Gaitonde muses at the beginning of Sacred Games. Pairing it with another of his musings elsewhere, “Bhagwaan ko maante ho? Bhagwaan ko lund pharak nahin padta.” (“Do you believe in God? God doesn’t give a fuck.”), one arrives at the heart of the complex question religion shrouds and Sacred Games is trying to illuminate, who does religion serve? God or people?
Carol D’Souza is a research scholar and an avid reader.