Sacred Games season 2 tackles multiple socio-political issues, from doomsday gurus to neocolonialism
In its second season, the visibly ambitious Sacred Games tackles a number of subtle socio-political issues — from doomsday gurus to neocolonialism and beyond.
During ‘Vikarna’, the super-dense episode 13 of Sacred Games (the Netflix show based on the 2006 Vikram Chandra novel of the same name; the second season was released last week), we finally see the moment where the story’s several moral conflicts (guru/shishya, cop/gangster and so on) momentarily converge in a moment of clarity.
“Saari duniya kaa naash ho raha hai, aur sirf Guruji sach keh rahe hain” (The entire world is on the verge of destruction and only Guruji is telling the truth), says Dilbagh Singh (Jaipreet Singh), a kind-hearted, mild-mannered constable, to Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the mob boss he had helped in prison — out of the goodness of his heart, as the show is at pains to remind us. Gaitonde has just asked Dilbagh why he chose the Osho-like Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) as his teacher. By happenstance, the two have turned towards the same charismatic source for answers, and Gaitonde wants to make sure he hasn’t been led astray. This, then, is the wicked asking the righteous for spiritual validation.
Moreover, as Anthony Storr wrote in Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus, “There is a well-known psychiatric phenomenon called folie à deux. If two people live together and one is mad, the other may become convinced by at least some of the delusions expressed by the psychotic partner. Shared delusions are mutually reinforcing, and membership of a sect led by a psychotic leader reassures both the leader and the disciple who has fallen under his spell of the truth of their beliefs.”
Two contemporaneous developments show us how this is one of Sacred Games’s enduring political lessons. For starters, Shahid Khan (RanvirShorey) finds willing conduits for his terrorist operations in India by convincing them that India and the rest of the world will always remain a threat to Islam. Also, after the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai, the city’s policemen carried out a number of extra-judicial killings, more often than not targeting young Muslim men — this is a big plot point in Sacred Games. It happened not just because these policemen were ordered to do so by their seniors, but also because many of them truly believed that the Muslim men they were illegally incarcerating and/or executing were subhuman, vermin meant to be stamped out by any means necessary.
In the world of Sacred Games, both of these developments represent a kind of doomsday discourse.
It is inaccurate, however, to equate what these (largely Hindu, upper-caste) policemen felt to the experiences of a persecuted community — Sacred Games falls safely short of that particular misstep. What it plumps for instead is an ever-so-slightly on-the-nose scene where Majid Khan (the ever-reliable Aamir Bashir) tells Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) that he cosies up to their corrupt boss DCP Parulkar (NeerajKabi) in order to hide his Muslim name. In fact, Majid’s Muslim-ness treads on fairly familiar ground throughout the show — in one scene, he taunts a Muslim suspect for the latter’s lack of comprehension of the Quran. In another, Majid and his wife bitterly note that Muslims in Mumbai have been ghettoised by proxy — the only places that’ll let them in are at the back of beyond. “Jahaan bijlee bhi na pahunche, wahaan Musalmaan pahunch jaayein” (We’re supposed to go farther than the electricity reaches).
Strictly speaking, this is not a criticism of the show so much as a frustrating reminder of how little the needle has moved on this — just ask a young Muslim couple house-hunting in Mumbai these days. By showing us how Muslims of wildly different socio-economic standing have to endure comparably (if not equally) dehumanising behaviors, Sacred Games echoes the intersecting axes of oppression in India, and how most axes are rendered irrelevant once you’re identifiably Muslim.
This cross-pollination is fitting, considering the novel Sacred Games brought the language of the streets into English-speaking, English-reading circles — arguably more so than any other Indian novel of the 21st century. Consider this editorial addendum that the New York Times were obliged to publish after a January 2007 review of Sacred Games raised eyebrows among Indian readers.
“If readers have been considering picking up a little conversational Hindi, they would probably do well not to begin with the sample list of words in the Jan. 7 review of “Sacred Games,” a novel by Vikram Chandra that sprinkles untranslated Hindi throughout its English text. Indian readers pointed out that while most of the Hindi terms in the review were innocuous, several were in fact obscene — suitable for Chandra’s tough-guy characters, no doubt, but not for the Book Review, where editors failed to check the meaning of the words in the novel’s glossary.”
The spectre of neocolonialism
Early in the season, we meet the wily RAW agent Kusum Devi Yadav (the magnificent Amruta Subhash) who recruits Gaitonde to do her dirty work — in Kenya, that is. RAW and the Indian government wants to replace Mombasa’s bootlegging mafia with a figurehead of their choosing, since Mohammad Bobocho, the current don, pays tribute to bigger, badder men who finance terrorist operations in India. For both Yadavji and Gaitonde, the other is a means to an end. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that Yadavji appeals to the mobster’s sense of patriotism (“You’ll be doing your country a service for the first time ever).
For what Gaitonde ends up doing goes beyond Bobocho’s dethroning-via-murder (although that’s brutal enough) — it amounts to a kind of neocolonialism. Two former colonies replicate colonial-era attitudes and behavior patterns, one of them assuming the role of the coloniser. Consider Gaitonde’s summary dismissal of Kenyans as a wretched folk, well beyond the point of rescue.
“Wahaan ka log apun se zyaada gareeb, sarkaar apun se zyaada beimaan aur launde apun se bade nashedi” (The people there were poorer than us, the government more corrupt than ours, and the youth bigger drug users than ours)
This is very similar to the concerns raised by writers like Frantz Fanon, as well as those influenced by his works, like Sylvia Wynter or Ta-Nehisi Coates. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon explores how the psyche of the colonised is affected by colonialism. Ironically, in Fanon’s reading of the situation, it is those at the bottom of social hierarchies (including and especially drifters, criminals, people on the margins) who can help revolutionaries shrug off colonial mindsets from the nascent nation-state. It’s a lifelong criminal like Gaitonde, however, who helps bring about a new kind of colonialism to Mombasa — Fanon’s worst fears coming true, in a way. Earlier, the Kenyans would die in huge numbers because of the white man’s bullet or through starvation. Now, they die because of the poisonous hooch that Gaitonde brings to the streets of Mombasa. Only the hand that holds the whip has changed.
Sins of the father
It goes without saying, of course, that Sacred Games lays it on thick with the religious symbolism. By the time you’re done registering the insignia, the pravachans, not to mention the circular doublespeak of its godman-villain, Sacred Games also squeezes in a brief, testy interrogation scene inside a church. As it so happens, the show’s (and the novel’s) most persistent religious theme is, curiously enough, a Catholic one — the Biblical concept of ‘sins of the father’, ie future generations paying the price for (or being goaded into action by) the actions of their parents (although, of course, there’s some precedent in Hindu mythology, too, like Janamejaya’sSarpaSatra wherein he tried to extinguish snakes from this earth after their king Takshak killed his father Parikshit).
Gaitonde maintains throughout the narrative that all his troubles were caused by one or the other of his “teen baap”, three father figures in his life (his biological father, the smuggler he started working for while still very young and finally, Guruji). As Sartaj digs deeper and deeper into Guruji’s past, he realises that his father Dilbagh Singh was part of the godman’s all-important Dubrovnik ashram, where the Mumbai terror plot’s inner circle — which includes the murderous Malcolm Murad (Luke Kenny) — was formed. Anjali Mathur’s (Radhika Apte) father is revealed to be Yadav’s RAW colleague (and lover) from the 90s. Constable Katekar’s adolescent son Rohit, having seen Sartaj’s failure to protect his late father, is radicalised by a local Hindutva outfit and participates in the lynching of an innocent young Muslim man.
All of these characters try, at some point or the other, to walk out of their parents’ shadows, but apropos the story’s time-is-a-circle philosophy, find themselves confronting the worst about their erstwhile guardians. Seen in that light, Sacred Games is a story about grown-up children trying to save the world from their deeply flawed parents — parents who were, in turn, often acting on paranoid impulses.
Whether there will be a third season, and whether the third season starts making the current generation more accountable (Sartaj, for example, is barely punished for any of his several misdemeanors throughout the story — assaulting colleagues and suspects alike, consuming illegal psychedelic drugs while on the case) remains to be seen.
For now, though, let us return to the aforementioned moment of truth between Dilbagh and Gaitonde, and its implications for Sacred Games. When Dilbagh Singh professes his admiration for what he sees as Guruji’s doomsday truth-telling, he’s letting viewers in on the secret to the godman’s power. The answer is revelatory — if you convince enough number of people that a) the world is ending and b) everybody is in a collective conspiracy of silence, your sermon on the mount gains extra legitimacy, no matter what you exhort the people to do (in Guruji’s case, aid a slow-burning, decade-long plot to attack Mumbai with a nuclear bomb and trigger World War III). Your followers would rather do too much than too little; such is the price extracted by their existential panic.
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