Sacred Games is an Indian Hindi language crime thriller that is based upon Vikram Chandra’s 2006 book of the same name. Having read the book I was looking forward to the seeing the show and was not disappointed, which is mostly the case when Movies or Shows are based on books as most of the book’s flavor is lost adapting it to the screen. However, Sacred Games not only manages to entertain, it brings out a new dimension to Indian Television Shows, which were usually dominated by soap operas of women in sarees getting abused by their mother-in-laws or sappy family oriented dramas which hardly has any relevance to modern society.
Sacred Games is India’s first Netflix original series and in my opinion, it comes close to retaining an “Indian flavor” while competing with some of the best original TV series globally. The plot revolves around Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) who is a troubled police officer in Mumbai who receives a phone call from gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an almost mythical figure in the Mumbai underworld, who tells him to save the city within 25 days; the series chronicles the events which follow.
The show’s overview is simple and if you read just that, you’d think Sacred Games is nothing special.
Season 1 begins with Sartaj Singh who is a troubled Mumbai Police inspector who seeks validation from a police force he hates for its corruption and is in the midst of a separation from his wife. He receives a phone call from Ganesh Gaitonde, a notorious crime lord who has been missing for 16 years. He tells Sartaj to save the city in 25 days, beginning a chain of events that burrows deep into India’s underworld. On his journey, Sartaj is helped by Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer Anjali Mathur; flashbacks detail Gaitonde’s origins, and how he became Mumbai’s crime lord. The first season follows Sartaj as he tries to uncover clues about Gaitonde’s past and learns about a connection between Gaitonde and his father.
In season two, Gaitonde’s story continues in flashbacks while Sartaj tries to find answers. Sartaj discovers an ashram to which his father once belonged, and learns about their apocalyptic plans to create a new, conflict-free world. Gaitonde’s meeting with Khanna Guruji, how he became part of the ashram, and his activities with them are depicted in flashbacks. Also explored is how Gaitonde was deployed in Kenya by Kusum Devi Yadav – a RAW officer who tries to keep Gaitonde’s archenemy Suleiman Isa alive so she can capture and kill Shahid Khan, a dangerous extremist who turns out to be Sartaj’s cousin and harbors a plan (with the ashram) to wipe out India.
Based on the overview alone, the show doesn’t seem to be warranting a view – but you couldn’t be more wrong. The show delves into several aspects of the Indian society that most foreigners would not even understand from a first glance. It focuses on India’s diverse society and the simmering mistrust and hostility between Hindus and Muslims within the society. It looks at the rampant poverty that drives young men towards the criminal underworld and the corruption among the politicians and police which forces people to depend upon a greater presence that no one has ever seen – God.
A great comment in the show is made by Ganesh Gaitonde (played superbly by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – “Hindu hotel se apun seekha ki dharam ke naam pe janta ka kitna chutiya banaya ja sakta hai.” (I learned working at the Hindu Hotel, that in the name of religion how you can fuck with people’s minds and make a fool of them). There is an amazing scene within the show, where we see Ganesh Gaitonde as a poor immigrant in Mumbai, working in a Hindu hotel – a small hotel, which serves strict vegetarian food. Its customers are strict vegetarian Hindus who believe that even the touch of a person who consumes meat/eggs/fish can desecrate their piousness and purity. The owner is oppressive who steals his employees’ wages and beats them for trying to etch out a living to supplement their measly income. Ganesh Gaitonde, who gives him a pure Hindu lifestyle beginning with eating chicken (despite being hired for being the pure son of a Hindu Brahmin priest) and then bringing the bones of the chicken he ate and mixing it with the rice meals for the customers. When the customers discover the bones, their rage at their religion being desecrated, beat up the owner of the hotel while Ganesh quits the work, understanding a deep insight into Indian society – that if you play it well, you can make people do anything in the name of religion and it can open the doors to wealth, power and prosperity on the backs of people who are fooled by the drug called religion.
Another dialogue shows the continuous struggle within India’s youth, to, on one hand be religious and god-fearing individuals like their parents before them and their lack of trust in divine intervention due to the constant corruption, hopelessness and degradation of humanity around them – “Bhagwan ko maante ho? Bhagwan ko l*nd farak nahi padta” (Translation – Do you believe in God? God doesn’t give two fucks about anything). Now this comment shows how Indian society despite the dominant role of religion within it, is also losing hope as despair, tragic events and being constantly let down by the democratic apparatus, and wonders if God actually cares? If he doesn’t care, then why believe and pray to him? If evil is never punished, then what is the point of being good?
The show has many unique characters – Ganesh Gaitonde, the son of a poor Brahmin priest from a village in India, who comes to Mumbai, having murdered his mother for adultery; Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police officer, who is reeling from the collapse of his own marriage and disliked within his own police force for being a cop with morals, disgusted by the corruption that swirls around him; Bunty, a woman-beating, Islamaphobe, Hindu gangster who worked for Ganesh Gaitonde and Anjali Mathur, a feminist RAW agent who teams up with Sartaj. However, some of the best characters are supporting – Sartaj’s constant buddy Constable Ashok Katekar, who also has some of the best dialogues within the show and Ganesh Gaitonde’s transgender lover Kukoo, who also highlights the plight of the transgender (or Hijara) community in India. If you read the book, Kukoo doesn’t have a big role to play but in the show her role is changed, as the show isn’t just about the book. It is about the relevance of the characters within Indian society.
The show looks into the darker side of India, underneath the shining, growing exterior. The political corruption, the degradation of poverty and the toxic atmosphere created by religious beliefs form the core of the success of the show – the second season also looks at the pseudo-holy men who brainwash spiritually thirsty individuals into a life of sin and moral corruption. To conclude, I would focus on another of the show’s dialogues that stayed with me – “Hindustan jab Hindustan nahin bana tha tab se politics ki macchi ko dharam ke tel mein fry karte hue aaye hain.” (Translation – Even when India was not India, since then, people have been frying the fish (politics) in the hot oil of religion) which is true as since the time of the British rule, when divide and rule politics helped keep India in chains until 1947, when India and Pakistan were created due to the toxic rhetoric among Hindus and Muslims sowed by the British and nurtured by Indian and Pakistani politicians.
Watch Sacred Games to delve into the crazy, roller-coaster that is India and if you are a foreigner watch it to learn how India is more than a land of snakes, palaces and spices.