Seriously, go easy on the 'gochi', okay?
Here's the only way to catch season two of Sacred Games -- which released last week -- if you haven't already: burn slow, don't binge!
The secret to Sacred Games is Saif Ali Khan (as Sartaj Singh). That you perennially sense a tonally subdued, Sardar, non-hero for a cop; let alone even once feel an overwhelming presence of one of Bollywood's longest surviving superstars on a platform/series, that didn't have a massive Indian marquee-name before Khan, says a lot about how secure he's grown as an actor.
The deeply internalised Sartaj first appeared in the short-story Kama in Vikram Chandra's collection, Love And Longing In Bombay (1997), almost a decade before his tome, Sacred Games (2006).
"The Gaiety Galaxy crowd, though that's changed a lot too, will probably think you're doing nothing [in the show]. But you are," Khan said, when we briefly met during the shoot of season two (S2) of Sacred Games.
This is obviously a sharp contrast to Nawazuddin Siddiqui as don Ganesh Gaitonde. As a faadu gangster, Gaitonde ranks in movie-lore as simply the finest, after Siddiqui again, as Faizal Khan in Gangs Of Wasseypur! And that was a role Siddiqui once told me he seemed to be struggling with, as soon as Faizal rose to the top, taking over his family-run mafia.
Director Anurag Kashyap calmed Siddiqui down with a quick-fix instruction: That the truly, genuinely powerful never exhibit their power with the obvious strut, or swag. He should play it down and be sub-consciously comfortable in the knowledge of who he already is. You feel that about Faizal.
In the same way, you see the absolutely opposite trajectory—going from full "daring", to strangely vulnerable— in Gaitonde. While even as his naturally understated self, Sartaj sort of comes into his own by the end of Sacred Games S2. This gradual see-saw in personalities occurs over cleverly separate and intersecting timelines. At one end, the story starts from Gaitonde's furthest past to the point where he actually meets Sartaj. And on the other, we follow Sartaj's future, from the moment Gaitonde first connects with him.
The thing one notices about Gaitonde is obviously how many lives you can live within one! But through his story, you practically cover the entire expanse of the mighty Mumbai underworld, descending into irrelevance and migration ever since it took a sharp turn towards terrorism with the 1993 Bombay blasts.
No one's covered Bombay underworld in Bollywood better than Ram Gopal Varma. Only fair he's adorably parodied in Sacred Games S2, although I'm told, he sadly declined to play himself in the series (bad sport). Left to itself, season one is closest to RGV's Satya. And the first three episodes of S2 are pretty much Company (also set in Kenya).
But that's not 'Sacred' Games, obviously. Can't be. Why would it be? The sacred part of the Games kicks in around the fourth episode of S2, when the show practically shifts gears—even as it oddly balances pulp with the prophetic, on occasion, even profound. Some dialogues are to die for.
Now television has traditionally been considered the chewing gum of the brain—watched along with a bunch of stuff happening in a living room, as compared to theatrical features that require absolute, undivided attention. Netflix (synonym for OTT apps), often streamed on personal devices, is perhaps closest to a page-turning novel. Its consumption is often compared to long stretches of binge.
And yet there was something about the appearance of Pankaj Tripathi, completely killing it as Guruji, somewhere in the middle of S2, that, kind of made me slow down as a viewer. There's a frickin' guruji across TV stations, and in every desi nukkad and gully. Tripathi doesn't parody a part that is already a parody.
The writers instead let you into something that is uniquely Indian. Like everything else about the series—Bollywood, mafia, police, religion, politics, there's even a shot of cricket… No, next isn't spirituality. But a post-'70s spiritual-industrial complex, going back from PM Indira Gandhi's Dhirendra Brahmachari, to Narasimha Rao's Chandraswami, that has few parallels in the political universe. Hello, Baba Ramdev!
S2 itself begins to make less sense unless you constantly allow it to connect to the world off-screen. Carefully listen to Guruji. He sounds like Steve Bannon (Trump's former chief strategist) from the Cambridge Analytica documentary, The Great Hack. And I quote (Bannon), "If you wanna build a new society, you have to break it first [out of the breakage will emerge what you seek]." Hi, Satya Yug.
An Indo-Pak nuclear attack may be a MacGuffin in this underworld saga going ahead. Nuclear bunkers, as shown on the screen, are exactly the 'doomsday underground shelters' selling for millions in the US currently.
You hear the current PM calling India's nuclear weapons not some crackers which have been kept stored for Diwali. The home minister says a "no first-use" policy for nuclear arsenals is only for the present—subject to change. Pakistan is altogether another story. Not talking about the show. But what it kept making me think, while gradually hurtling towards a supposed apocalypse. Could go on. Chilled me to the bones.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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