The amorality of Sacred Games: How Netflix's series reflects hallmarks of Anurag Kashyap’s films
Sacred Games is attractive as entertainment because it confirms people in their facile sense that they did right in attending only to themselves — since the world itself is beyond repair or redemption.
Anurag Kashyap has brought a distinct ‘realistic’ aesthetic to Indian film and every film he has made hitherto is unlike anything else from Indian cinema. It is therefore only to be expected that his series Sacred Games for Netflix should be unlike the soap operas aired so far — though it is also quite probable he is not creating a new trend; there is only a small likelihood of anyone following his approach on television. Sacred Games is co-directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, who has been associated with Kashyap before and reports indicate that the two directed the two separate threads comprising the narrative of Sacred Games. If one were to describe Kashyap’s approach in a few words it is that there is nothing he flinches at showing onscreen and, in this respect at least, Motwane shows himself to be fully up to him. Anurag Kashyap is evidently not someone difficult to mimic, if only one chooses to.
Sacred Games is based on a novel by Vikram Chandra which runs to nearly a thousand pages; a new War and Peace but set more modestly in the Mumbai underworld.
It is difficult to say what Sacred Games is about since it includes gangsters, drugs, film star excesses, kinky sex, gun running, fake encounters, communal riots, counterfeit currency, espionage, politicians, corrupt policemen and even nuclear terrorism as issues. Very often, action centred on one issue is interrupted by action focused on another. Some of the raw material may be considered politically sensitive but, in order to survive controversies, the novelist/directors have hit on the strategy of giving eccentric names to wicked characters that cannot be culturally associated; what can anyone make of the name Malcolm Murad, for instance?
The series tries to be dramatic but the directors have only an approximate idea of what dramatic action is and tend to confuse wanton violence with it; but this only follows Kashyap’s work. Gangs of Wasseypur, for instance, commenced with a shootout and we did not know by the end of Part I how the groups involved in it were related; we were apparently meant only to savour the spectacle of guns going off and blood on the walls. Sacred Games, similarly, begins with a pet dog dropped from a high-rise and splattering on a pavement, but the importance of the dead dog to the plot remains unclear. This event is followed by gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqi) shooting a grievously wounded woman in the face and we have apparently to wait for Season 2 to be informed of its significance. If Kashyap had watched violent openings in world cinema with more care he might have discovered the bits of coherent narrative attached to the violent acts that make us anticipate future events.
The story of Sacred Games begins when Police Inspector Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) receives a mysterious phone call implying that the person he is talking to is a criminal of great importance but, on questioning, the man commences to tell him about his own childhood, his father and mother. My query here is that when an impending crisis is suggested, can the bearer of the news be allowed to recount his life story as a prelude? One may be sure that a later moment will duly arrive when casual information can be imparted, but the director needs to wait until that moment or the tension will dissipate.
As it turns out the man who calls Sartaj is Ganesh Gaitonde, a gangland boss who disappeared 15 years before and the gangster, who shoots himself just after he reveals this information, tells him that in 26 days or so the city will be destroyed – that is everyone except a fortunate named Trivedi, who will be saved. This again is far too much to digest (why save one unknown man if an entire city is doomed?) and using this farfetched and whimsical threat as a means of tightening the tension does not work. Trivedi has been duly named but we wait in vain for him to become essential to the story.
The remaining episodes are arranged as a countdown to the apocalypse – 26, 25, 24, etc. – but there is little anticipation, not least because of the surfeit of characters, and subplots punctuated by gunshots. We need to keep in mind numerous policemen of various ranks, some agents of RAW, several gangsters each of whom has assistants with different names, molls who dress alike and conduct themselves similarly, politicians involved in crime and criminals involved in politics, families and children for many of the above and heated cross-communications between them in every episode. Ganesh Gaitonde’s story runs parallel to Sartaj Singh’s and this may seem like a wise move but recapitulating the events and arranging them logically in our minds is a hopeless task. Very often, the same characters appear both in the present and 20 years before with only hair colour to demarcate the times. Events from the two strands keep interrupting each other with no detectable rationale; there are no discernible stylistic of tonal differences (say soft focus or muted colours) to either of them. Mumbai does not also look different in the two stories and this furthers our general bewilderment. In fact, one imagines that it would be possible to interchange two of the episodes (say Nos. 5 and 7) casually with each other without the spectator noticing anything seriously amiss.
With all this incoherence Sacred Games, while it is not exciting viewing, is still watchable and the reason may be that the directors keep us waiting for the spectacles to follow.
As in Kashyap’s earlier films, Sacred Games shows us alleyways and corners in the dingiest parts of Mumbai and what makes it saleable to a respectable clientele is the ‘grime tourism’ it has on offer.
We do not quite follow the narrative but we wait for the next bust of gunfire and the next bullet hole in a forehead, the violence not filmed in sparkling locales but in red light areas and the seediest dives, often in late hours of the night. To keep pace with the grimy visuals – that virtually announce underhand deals and illegality – the film includes the coarsest kind of dialogue; there is, in fact scarcely a line that does not have references to anuses and genitalia, and a typical exchange recounted (inaccurately) is the following:
“Where is the consignment?”
“In your as****e, you mo********er.”
If I recollect right, in another slice of dialogue between two thugs (or perhaps a policeman and a thug) one man threatens to shove a coffin (or is it an ambulance?) up the other one’s behind with the expectation that the effort will create an opening larger than the Gateway of India, one that also draws tourists. None of these exchanges are particularly witty (as, say, Tarantino’s exchanges in Pulp Fiction are) but they are often followed by peals of laughter from the characters. We tend to consider remarks witty when they contain a subtle element of truth and what we are listening to are only curses. Also, there is the need to impart essential information which is drowned out in the noise created by the cursing. Perhaps decent Netflix clients imagine that this kind of conversation is the norm in the police force and the underworld, where colourful cursing is more valued than passing on information.
Anurag Kashyap, as suggested earlier, has often given us a kind of ‘realism’ with no precedent in Indian cinema, but we need to evaluate its worth more closely. We consider something ‘realistic’ when we recognise a truth in it and not simply when it replicates appearances. To describe a bit of violence from the classics, the Iliad contains a description of a soldier who has taken a spear at the back of his neck and which now protrudes from his mouth like a metallic tongue. There is no deliberate element of shock here but we are still discomfited. What shocks us is the matter-of-factness of the metaphor of a spear blade becoming a metallic tongue in a dead soldier’s mouth, an anatomical feature unwittingly mimicked. There is a creative ‘truth’ in the comparison and it is creative acts like these that are sorely lacking in the violence Sacred Games shows us, which is monotonously flatfooted.
It must be admitted that Kashyap and Motwane often make us flinch, but do we go to the movies to flinch?
Most notably, there is not even any overarching social vision in evidence to make us get a purchase on how politics works or recognise how one behaves in extreme circumstances. The film is inattentive to social mores as we understand them, and one instance is Gaithonde’s father, a Brahmin well-versed in the scriptures and who dresses in the spotless attire of a priest, being a beggar. This is around 1970 and Brahmin priests were, even then, revered people with power. Ascetics could beg but they were attired differently, usually unkempt and not dressed as priests are. An ascetic has abandoned the world but a priest is custodian of ritual and therefore someone with authority.
Still, all these are quibbles in relation to Sacred Games’ moral failing which is that the directors have no clear position on ‘correct action’. Sartaj is presented as a good person but he does not at pains to be correct. At one moment, for instance, he requisitions a car by pointing a gun at its owner. The correct procedure for a policeman to requisition a private car would be to show his badge and not his gun. Had the car owner demurred at having to hand over his car, would the good Sartaj have fired, one is led to ask. We get the sense from the film that in their quest to show things ‘as they are,’ the directors are scarcely concerned with how things ‘should be’; there is something debased in people with privilege being easily cynical about the world, which is what Sacred Games is evidence of. Artistic texts need to exhibit concern, and concern – taking a consistent political or ethical position – is what Sacred Games declines to show. What it offers is only a visceral portrayal of social corruption that may or may not correspond to any kind of truth since there is no way of telling how ‘true’ it all is - except through the locales; its ‘authenticity’ may be derived from newspaper reports but one doubts that such things happen so nonchalantly in the real world. What is only certain is that the public are being made to participate vicariously in the worst kinds of human imaginings, knowing fully well that their own lives are secure.
Being on Netflix, Sacred Games is evidently intended for a well-educated audience and its popularity makes one wonder at why educated people who live respectable lives should relish a portrayal of sub-human conduct of the kind offered by the series. The amorality of Sacred Games, its lack of a social vision has been the hallmarks of Kashyap’s films and the eagerness with which these portrayals are lapped up by proper folk merits some speculation. My own proposition here is that Indians being chronically inward-looking (as I have argued earlier in these columns) the educated classes have been assiduously caring only for themselves even as the milieu is degenerating and regardless of how awful the milieu has become, it is still ridiculously easy in India to buy oneself safety from it. When our cities become uninhabitable gated communities spring up everywhere and when our streets become unsafe the affluent simply engage private security guards to protect themselves. Sacred Games, I propose, is attractive as entertainment because it confirms people in their facile sense that they did right in attending only to themselves — since the world itself is beyond repair or redemption.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues, an interest that informs his books on film.
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