Sacred Games Season 2 [Netflix] Review: A Long and Hard look at India’s Dark Underbelly
Sacred Games Season 2 premiered on India’s 73rd Independence Day. It had a lot more burden of expectations on its shoulders as compared to the previous season. The reason is quite evident. The first season struck a chord with the Indian audiences and the cliff-hanger ending made the audiences wait quite eagerly for the next instalment. The second season delivers on the promise by a good stretch- although the only drawback the narrative has is the spoofy demeanour and an overtly stretched story.
The reviews to the Sacred Games Season 2 started appearing very soon, in a couple of hours from the show’s airing. These reviews are a little short-sighted. The reason being the fact that most of them are based only on the first three episodes- Netflix has only that much to offer for the sake of reviews. Watching the entire set of eight episodes makes the experience a lot better because the starting episodes are quite sluggish in their pace as well as treatment. But the story starts gaining solid ground by the fourth one, and things move much better than on.
Watching the second season evoked mixed feelings as a viewer. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, the second season is a little gentler on the gore, violence and crassness, although the audiences have by now not only adjusted to it but even appreciated the treatment.
The second season employs more story arcs than the first one. It is much more reflective on human nature and relationships and even lends a perspective on the political narrative in India for the last 25 years. Reportedly, it has even exhausted the material from the original book which means that for the third season to air, the screenwriters have to move beyond the book. It is a tricky thing- the narrative has been quite stretched already. Too much of anything is bad.
The second season brings into the picture the larger story of modern India. It is no more surprising that Vikram Chandra spent almost a decade writing the book on which the show is based. And the story has its own unofficial affiliation- based on the collective narratives of dozens of policemen, film people, gangsters interviewed by Chandra and his equally famous friend, S. Hussain Zaidi.
It is quite appalling how politics, crime, religion and bigots are parts of the same wheel, completing and aiding each other. Even Chandra mentioned in an interview that what he set out to write originally was a 300-page thriller, which turned into a 900-page mammoth once he realised the width of the canvas he was looking at.
The story takes up exactly from where the first season ended. Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is given a new life and forced to leave Mumbai post-1993. He becomes a pawn in the hands of the RAW and starts a business in Mombasa, Kenya to further the interests of IFS Trivedi as well as K.D. Yadav, his handler from the RAW. Back in present-day Mumbai, Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) discovers Gaitonde’s bunker which leads him to the news of an imminent nuclear threat on Mumbai. Enter Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi), the religious fanatical leader who has insane thoughts about the current civilization and how to lead the world into ‘Satyug’- the purest age in Hindu mythology. The plot is weaved around these three major arcs with small intermittent arcs all around.
This season, like its predecessor, has some really outstanding performances. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is brilliant in his crass portrayal of the ‘Mumbai Bhai’. His role has been toned down in this season a bit. Working as a pawn in the hands of RAW, politicians and ultimately the Guruji makes him reflect on his reality. This also lends perspective into his insanity in the first season. His performance is more on the lines of a spectator witnessing a brilliant play that ultimately leads to destruction.
Saif Ali Khan gives an understated yet on-point performance as the ‘righteous yet self-doomed’ cop in this season. This time a lot more has been reflected in his tragic personal life. His broken marriage, his guilt over his subordinate Katekar’s death, his own exhaustion with the world and his timely pilgrimage to the Guruji’s ashram seeking answers- all makes sense.
But Pankaj Tripathi, through his portrayal of Guruji, clearly gives the breakout performance of this season. His role as the surprisingly calm guru with the most insane ideas of destroying the entire civilization to redeem the glory of past ages is perfect. His articulate use of mythological narrative about ages and characters blends in very well with the narrative. Following his impressive acting, both literally and in the act is Kalki Koechlin as Batya Abelman- Guruji’s closest aide and his ‘mistress’.
The best female role, however, is that of the RAW agent K.D. Yadav played by Amruta Subhash. A gender flick from the book, where Yadav was a man, she is the handler of Gaitonde in Kenya. And like many women in the previous as well as this season, she has handled his brash male personality rather too well. Extremely stoic and unaffected in her outlook, she represents the lives Intelligence agents actually live. Playing people against each other for the sake of the country slowly reaches to the point in life when there is probably no difference left between right or wrong. Ranvir Shorey has less screen time in the show but makes use of whatever is at hand as the terror mastermind, Shahid Khan.
The show has obvious limitations, also, this time. While the first season enthralled the audiences with this brand new world of a ‘bygone era’, this season has many narratives that the audiences have grown up watching in their own ways. Whether it is the religious extremism holding ground in India, the rampant corruption in the Police, Pakistan’s obsession with blowing up India, the silent communal divide in the country- each of these tonics has been sipped by the audiences over the years. The tricks get stale. Also, the narratives also aren’t completely original. Suleiman Isa’s escape to Dubai post-1993 Mumbai blasts is similar to what Dawood Ibrahim did back then. Gaitonde’s attempt to finance a film on his own life is quite similar to what we heard in an audio conversation between Chota Shakeel and Sanjay Dutt with Mahesh Manjrekar playing the filmmaker.
The reference to Ram Gopal Verma isn’t quite subtle when calling the director making Gaitonde’s film as Ram G. Verma. The portrayal is quite spoofy as well as superficial. Guruji’s ashram is an obvious nod to Osho’s ‘Rajneeshpuram’ in Oregon, USA and the character of Batya loosely fits that of Ma Anand Sheela.
Sexually fluid orgies, blood-red pills inducing hallucinations, funding illegal trades and armed rebellions have been in the repertoire of religious bigots-‘babas’- for some time now. The idea of a pure Hindu race isn’t new either. So, is the story of ISI being complicit in every terror attack in India. The season might make it to some American University’s essential viewing list someday but this ‘primer’ on the Indian story isn’t entirely alien at least to the Indian audiences.
Above all, the show raises some deep philosophical questions. When Batya asks Sartaj whether the world he is so keen on saving is worth it- it does create a strong question. The moral ambiguity cannot be starker than it gets in the show. Mumbai, in its essence, does represent the inherent rottenness of the glamorous and shiny humanity.
Sartaj’s own lonely life and his inner fears show us, in light, the life of the man who is on the run to save Mumbai. It is moving to see how a good Constable’s son turns towards religious vandalism after his death. How a Muslim Inspector, Majid Khan, has to seek the patronage of a highly corrupt DCP to escape the unnecessary attention Muslim cops face in Mumbai post-1993.
Ganesh Gaitonde’s breakdown at the end shows us the inherent weakness he has been carrying around all the time. How a religious bigot manages to leverage his influence to erode an entire city from India’s map is disturbing. It shows us exactly how far this country has come away from ignorance.
There is a scene where a woman is at the mercy of both Sartaj as well as Gaitonde, being shot by them in the first instance. While Gaitonde eventually kills his woman, Sartaj chooses to spare the life of his victim. It is a classic contrast between the two major characters. While having similarly troubled lives, it is their choices that make them different.
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Season 2 ensures that the Sacred Games permanently enters the pop culture of India. While the first season gave us the oft-quoted line ‘Bhagwaan ko maante ho?’, the second season will have its fair share of memes with universal acclaim to lines like ‘Guruji ka pyaar’ and ‘Balidaan dena padega’. Not many authors writing about India have had the privilege of getting their work adapted on screen. The select few who had the privilege, almost all were upset with the way their works were destroyed to turn them into the ‘quintessential Hindi picture’. The legendary R.K. Narayan was quite upset with what Dev Anand did to his book to make the most critically acclaimed movie of his career. I am sure Vikram Chandra would probably be happier than R.K. Narayan was.