Much has been written on Sacred Games since it was released by Netflix in July. The series has garnered good reviews for its quality of storytelling, well-crafted production and performances by Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, along with a strong supporting cast.
On the surface, Sacred Games is a crime thriller set against a cosmopolitan Mumbai backdrop. Yet this is not a simple story but one with several layers exploring different facets of the city and its complex past. It is within this subtext that Sacred Games tries to have an extremely important conversation about today’s India.
Based on Vikram Chandra’s novel by the same name, Sacred Games is a tale of two narratives. One is set in the present and centred around the character of Sartaj Singh, an honest but jaded Mumbai police officer, played by Khan, as he stumbles through the city trying to uncover a nefarious conspiracy to destroy the city. The other is set in the past, centred around the enigmatic gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, played by Siddique. The past sets up the narrative of the present but all the strings are yet to be revealed as the eight-episode arc covers about 25% of the book’s content, with a second season also planned.
Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane of Phantom Films collaborated on this venture and directed different parts of each of the episodes. The series moves between the two directorial perspectives effortlessly to weave together a complex story with many layers and nuances, creating an interrelated universe of mobsters, politicians, cops and film stars. It draws on elements of two genres, the gangster film and the police procedural, differentiating the activities of the two forms in the narrative. Given that Sacred Games is an online web series, it did not have to go through the censor board, allowing the directors a freedom and artistic license at a scale hitherto unavailable till now. Kashyap and Motwane have made full use of this, pushing the envelope, sometimes even going a little wild in sections.
What stands out in the series is the way urban space and ambience have been used to make Mumbai a key protagonist. Kaushik Bhaumik, professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics, and an expert on Mumbai’s cinematic history, believes that the city has a life of its own in this series. “It is a goods storage city, the goods that after a time have a life of their own and make the city alive and active as a stranger,” says Bhaumik.
In the first episode, as Singh races to find Gaitonde after receiving a phone call out of the blue from him, the nearly deserted streets, midnight streets of Mumbai have a ghostly quality to them. Like the streets, decrepit buildings, garbage and sheds appear like mute witnesses, silently carrying the memory of the city’s cataclysmic past.
At another point in the series, right before a pivotal encounter with Gaitonde’s former henchman Bunty, Singh is shown on a roof with his colleague waiting for the gangster to come out of his hideout. However, things don’t really pan out the way they were expected to, and only after getting down from the roof does Singh realise that Bunty was using decoys. As he runs through a narrow lane trying to catch Bunty, the camera tilts up to show his colleague following along on the roof. The sequence captured with great flair, conveys a feeling of claustrophobia right before the climatic encounter. Night and day also seem to be narrative instruments and have been used to great effect by the directors.
Mumbai, however, is only an entry point to raise larger questions about the state of contemporary India. While the characters and the story may be fictional, historical references to real events pepper the narrative. Gaitonde’s story about his rise to power is pockmarked with events that move from the Shah Bano case to the demolition of the Babri Masjid; from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi to today’s right-wing Hindutva-supporting politicians.
While Gaitonde seems to be an amalgamation of a number of Mumbai gangsters of the era like Chotta Rajan and Arun Gawli, his rival Suleiman Isa is actually modelled after Dawood Ibrahim. The story is fictional, but the power struggle documents a dark part of Mumbai’s history, including the 1993 blasts masterminded by Ibrahim, Isa in Sacred Games, as retaliation for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed. Gaitonde laments that both he and Suleiman fought to possess Mumbai, but in the end, neither could possess the city.
Sacred Games opens with a dog being thrown from a Mumbai high-rise, splattering on the ground in a mess of fur and blood, setting the tone for the series which is engrossing and disturbing in equal measure. A question is asked, “Do you believe in God? God doesn’t care.” This question reverberates in the background throughout the series, shedding an uncomfortable light on the present. Gaitonde articulates his views on the hypocrisy of religion and how it is just the means to an end.
Gaitonde’s character is not communal, he runs a multi-religious gang. But, as the show progresses, he is slowly pushed down a very communal path due to greed, gang rivalry and circumstances. This individual shift is mirrored by the growing friction between the two communities at large in that time period. The tension culminates in Gaitonde massacring an entire settlement of Muslims after Suleiman’s gang attacks his house and kills his wife.
Religious tensions within his gang also boil over, leading to his most loyal Muslim lieutenant betraying him. This leaves Gaitonde open and vulnerable to be ultimately used by a shadowy organisation for their own ends, which as the series hints at, might be a religious war. By the time he realises what is happening, he is powerless to stop it.
This religious divide, invoked to establish Gaitonde’s past, is also apparent in Singh’s present-day narrative as he finds himself drawn into a fake encounter case. The series makes it clear that the victim was Muslim, and was killed despite being unarmed because it was convenient, and fit Islamophobic notions of equating Muslims with terrorists. This prejudice is so ingrained that Singh’s attempt to stay honest about the fake part of the encounter is seen as an act of rebellion.
This prejudice rears its head again when Singh’s loyal companion, constable Katekar, repeatedly dismisses a Muslim woman trying to find her missing son by telling her that her son must have run away to join a terrorist group. Katekar refuses to take the case, resulting in serious repercussions for him later on.
These fictional undercurrents are meant to resonate with our reality. Think of the recent lynching in Alwar, where policemen allegedly stopped for tea before taking Rakbar Khan to hospital. According to Bhaumik, while the series is not an allegory about contemporary India, “It is a psychological report about the paranoia’s of the nation. It’s a fantasy that draws on sensations rather than narratives.” Thus, while Sacred Games does not directly relate to events of the present, it draws on the contemporary cauldron of violent sentiments that dominate our present, transforming the way we watch the series.
Over the last couple of years, traditional media, barring a few notable exceptions, has retreated into a shell of sorts, choosing not to challenge the dominant, divisive narrative. This has created a vacuum which now has to be filled by other means. This is the space that Sacred Games seems to have captured. It’s take on communalism’s destructive potential and its all-pervasive presence in everyday life, has shown us how entertainment media can play a powerful role when it comes to to reflecting on the country’s past, present and future.
Ashish Y. is an independent journalist who has worked with the times of India and news18.com.