Synopsis – A link in their pasts leads an honest cop to a fugitive gang boss, whose cryptic warning spurs the officer on a quest to save Mumbai from cataclysm.
Episodes – S02E01 to S02E08
My Take – Based on the 916 page book from author Vikram Chandra, as far Netflix India’s first original series goes, Sacred Games set the bar quite high. Set in seedy by lanes of Mumbai, the first season had all the trappings of a perfect gangster drama and an intriguing conspiracy thriller, making it an instant hit upon release, putting the Indian storytellers high on the world map.
With Anurag Kashyap returning to direct Ganesh Gaitonde’s track and Masaan’s Neeraj Ghaywan taking over from Vikramaditya Motwane to helm Sartaj Singh’s story-line, the second season is mounted on a much larger scale this time with characters escaping to countries abroad and operating global networks. And the making of Ganesh Gaitonde has everything you would expect from a classic Netflix tale.
Not that Season 2 is the revelation its predecessor was, or that it necessarily justifies its existence in the way that show-based-on-book sequels don’t even bother trying to. But it remains a gripping mystery, an embarrassment of riches when it comes to showcasing Indian actors, and part of the growing mountain of exceptional Indian television that burst onto the scene last year.
By holding the bar with fantastic performances, this time around the plot reaches far beyond gangland rivalries to tackle relevant issues. Its social, thematic and political relevance smacks you in the face even harder than the ground-breaking first season, adding notches of psychological trauma, communal upheaval and repercussions of war, with a sprinkling of humor, new characters to root for and just the right amount of fun your moral conscience will allow.
Before you can laugh at a dialogue or marvel the visual brilliance of a scene, the show reels you back in to its looming threat of nuclear terrorism.
The first season kicked off with a phone call by Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), cryptically warning him of a violent plan in store for Mumbai. The gangster then kills himself after setting Singh on a 25-day countdown.
The narrative cleaves into two timelines: Singh works to thwart the impending attack on Mumbai, while a parallel flashback follows Gaitonde’s rise in the word of crime. The season ended with Sartaj uncovering an arsenal for a possible nuclear attack, while Gaitonde’s track, meanwhile, ended with him being ferried out of prison by a group of mysterious abductors.
In the second season, we find Gaitonde being held captive at sea, somewhere off the coast of Africa, and is forced into teaming up with RAW operative Kusum (Amruta Subhash) and do the intelligence agency’s bidding in the interests of national security, which mainly includes taking on his rival Suleiman Isa (Saurabh Sachdeva) and the new kid on the terror block Shahid Khan (Ranvir Shorey) who has founded his own terror cell to create an Islamic takeover of India.
Hoping to eventually find his way back to Mumbai, Gaitonde agrees to assist and sets up a new life in Kenya, but remains frustrated over not wielding power anymore, an emotion which finally introduces him to Khanna Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi), a mysterious god-man who aspires to take the world back from chaos to an era of peace. While Gaitonde sees purity in his intentions, nefarious deeds begin to play out in the background.
Meanwhile in the present day, Sartaj has joined a Special Investigation Team along with Inspector Majid Ali Khan (Aamir Bashir) and ACIO Markand (Samir Kochhar), to look into the threat to Mumbai. While tracing links to terror groups, led by Shahid Khan, he comes across a lead which confirms a link between Guruji, Gaitonde and his deceased father, Dilbagh Singh (Jaipreet Singh).
And in order to understand how he is central to the conspiracy, Sartaj joins the Ashram, now lead by Batya Abelman (Kalki Koechlin), who introduces him to path of self-discovery and self-worth.
The story is once again intertwined with literary epics and grand allegory. As moody as it’s melancholic, as introspective as it is philosophical, Season 2 sets off on an exploratory voyage where cops and gangsters battle ideas of existentialism and the karmic burden of murder even as the perilous subversion of religion and spirituality continues to feed an ideological project.
If you are expecting a nail-biting, edge of the seat thriller, Season 2 isn’t it. Instead, it’s more of the same. The results are mixed. The show, especially the first four episodes, demand patience and attentiveness. Here, the supply of cliffhangers is seemingly inexhaustible, and the second season struggles to join and capitalize on the various fragments and compelling possibilities teased at the end of season one.
While it was always going to suffer the curse of comparison to its predecessor, Season 2 does come into its own when it shows us the different ways in which religion and god-men find their addicts. All the while tackling militant Hindu nationalism, the abuse of religion by the power elite, and government corruption.
The references to history, mythology and global events of terror and religious discord include the characters of this series in a larger universe of flawed men and women doomed to repeat the mistakes of both men and gods. There is also a poignant dialogue between Majid Khan and his wife where he comments on how his name causes half the people to use him while the other half to suspect him.
Though it makes a solitary reference to the lynching of minorities, the Aashram parallel with several outfits, both overt and covert, that project peace but enable Hindu terrorism, its offset by an equally sinister depiction of Islamic extremists. The series depicts the spiritual facility as a place where drugs and sex share space with ascetic lifestyles and mythological musings mix with sinister designs.
Here, directors Kashyap and Ghaywan, along with writers Varun Grover, Dhruv Narang, Nihit Bhave and Pooja Tolani, lay down the blueprint that’d eventually make Gaitonde and Sartaj’s tracks intersect within the first few minutes of episode 1. Ganesh Gaitonde’s character arc and consequent transformation is simply breath-taking and the most compelling of the lot.
His suave cockiness gives way to anxious vulnerability towards the end, just as his fancy extravagant shirts give way to grave, somber-colored kurtas. He visibly ages on screen, not literally, but metaphorically. His stooped shoulders, resigned air, bulging eye-bags that overshadow even those extraordinarily long lashes of his are tiny details that convey a world of meaning.
While his transition into the abyss of spirituality is compellingly chronicled, his meteoric rise in Kenya is established simplistically without any real obstacles. His hatred for Suleiman Isa, too, seems like a creative blind spot as it doesn’t reach anywhere conclusively. However, Gaitonde and Jojo’s connection is the most engrossing, the first of any of his relationships in the show to have palpable chemistry and explicable attraction.
Though her character featured in Season 1, Jojo didn’t have a chance to make the same impression in a story dominated by the allegedly legendary love story of Gaitonde and Kukoo (Kubra Sait). Here, the duo spar in guttural Hindi, hurling curse words during phone conversations that feel as sexually charged as a physically explicit scene.
On the other end of the moral spectrum is Sartaj Singh. Haunted by his past, broken by his present, and uncertain of his future, he is on a downward spiral and gets sucked into a world of spiritual terrorism. It’s appropriate then that the hallucinatory drug that triggers agonizing moments of unbearable truth in the show is a transparent red pill.
Despite belonging to the other extremes, Sartaj and Gaitonde, the show eventually argues, are more similar than they’d like to believe. Gaitonde is a voice in Sartaj’s head, Guruji is a voice in Gaitonde’s head. The voices give the characters and by extension, the show an inward, interrogative gaze, confronting the viewers to look beyond the cheap gratification of a cat-and-mouse police procedural and uncover its psychical world.
Both characters suffer tremendous mental trauma and are unable to reconcile with their past. Their distance of time and space is aesthetically merged when they take the pill and confront their inner demons. Both are tied by their shared quest for escape, atonement and purpose.
However, some of the sub-plots are a snooze, especially the scenes involving the corrupt police officer Parulkar (Neeraj Kabi), whose moral compass goes from evil to erratic in the second season. And the track involving Sartaj’s father, Dilbagh Singh and his devotion to Guruji. The already weighed-down Sartaj didn’t need daddy issues added to his lot of woes, and the ensuing identity crisis do not result in any memorable scenes.
Zoya Mirza/Jamila (Elnaaz Norouzi), and her track with Gaitonde never finds a proper conclusion. Also, several happenings lack logic and reasoning for example, the suicide of Malcolm (Luke Kenny), for instance.
There are several other sequences that pop up randomly but have nowhere to go beyond and die a natural death, thereby making them redundant and unnecessary to the story, like the partition saga and the hint that Shahid Khan and Sartaj Singh are related by blood, But Shahid Khan dies without that particular angle being explored, thus making it an exercise in futility.
Both Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan slide back into their roles with veteran virtuosity. Siddiqui holds it together with unshakeable conviction, his eyes gleaming with such magnetic intensity, it’s hard to look away from him. While, Saif, on the other hand, is subdued and understated, internalizing his pain and rationing his anger, only allowing the bare minimum to reach the surface.
Pankaj Tripathi who was the big addition to the cast this year proves yet again that there is no role he can’t do. A delicious mix of creepy and cunning. The supporting cast once again add on the success. Amruta Subhash is fantastic and constantly overshadows Siddiqui in their scenes together, while Surveen Chawla and Elnaaz Norouzi play their parts effectively.
Neeraj Kabi, Aamir Bashir, Samir Kochhar, Jatin Sarna, Shalini Vatsa, Girish Kulkarni, Anupriya Goenka, Vikram Kochar, Chittaranjan Tripathy, Jaipreet Singh, Saanand Verma and Priyanka Setia are effective in other roles.
Unfortunately, the latest big name editions to the cast, Kalki Koechlin and Ranvir Shorey doesn’t get well written roles to justify their actions. On the whole, ‘Sacred Games’ Season 2 is an effective follow up that is instructive as it is enjoyable, which despite its shortcomings, remains worth a watch for its timely philosophical undercurrents.
Status – Season 2 (Completed)
Network – Netflix