How Sacred Games is burdened with our expectations
The Netflix-original series breaks new ground for Indian TV, but doesn't quite put it on par with the world.
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As far as creating web content is concerned, India is in a strange, paradoxical situation. It’s only logical that to escape the draconian nature of censorship for theatrical films or cable television, one must look to the internet.
But what we tend to forget is that access to the internet is a massive marker for privilege in this country. Having a Netflix subscription as well as the sensibilities to enjoy a series like Sacred Games even more so.
Effectively, only a minuscule fraction of Indians can actually watch and appreciate Netflix’s first original Indian series.
Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde in Sacred Games. [Credit: Instagram/SacredGames_TV]
An even bigger problem is that there is a huge void in Indian television where intelligent, well-crafted content should be, which has existed for almost two decades. In this time, privileged urban Indians (PUIs) have discovered American television and, more recently, world television, courtesy streaming platforms like Netflix.
While Indian TV stagnated and found new lows, the PUI discovered the highs of the golden age of American television. In the past few years, Netflix has helped bring this golden age to large parts of the world, and the PUI had access to more quality TV than ever before. This ensured that if and when Indian TV decided to catch up with the world, it would need to take a giant leap forward.
Sacred Games is undoubtedly a very engaging show. It gradually rises in intensity as the stakes in its world get higher. It cleverly avoids getting into ultra-niche territory by focusing as much on the plot as it does on the characters. It paints an extremely convincing, realistic and detailed portrait of not just Bombay, but also India, using only a handful of characters.
The show reveals the vast acting talent that can be found in India if only one bothers to look for it. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte are stars in their own right by now, but Neeraj Kabi as Parulkar, Kubra Sait as Kukoo, and Jitendra Joshi, who rules every scene he’s in as Katekar, have also turned heads with their performances.
Jitendra Joshi as Katekar in Sacred Games. [Credit: Screenshot/Netflix]
The show also hits home with its primary theme: the politics of religion. For screenwriters, weaving the real world into every strand of the fabric of their fictional world is an immense achievement. For directors, to effectively turn a city, its spaces, its past, and its present into a vital character in the story is a great accomplishment. The artists and craftspersons who made Sacred Games definitely deserve a standing ovation.
But there are areas where Sacred Games falls short. The character of Sartaj Singh is one such area. It’s hard to be sure why, but this character who was supposedly grey in the novel, has been shown as entirely white. This often happens when Bollywood’s A-listers are involved, but it’s hard to attribute that much clout to Saif Ali Khan in this phase of his career, especially since the show involved a massive corporation like Netflix.
Either way, a character that is overwhelmingly good with no selfish or ulterior motive in the morally ambiguous world of Sacred Games feels unconvincing, and is reflected in the way the character and his lines have been written.
Even the casting of Saif Ali Khan in this part raises eyebrows, partly because the rest of the cast towers over him and proves that there is a lot to be gained by looking beyond Bollywood clans for acting talent. Moreover, web content does not need the presence of an A-list star to “sell”. So, one can’t help but wonder why the makers opted for a star over an artist.
Kubra Sait as Kukoo, a transgender bar dancer. [Credit: Screenshot/Netflix]
However, the biggest problem with the show is the treatment of its female characters. Radhika Apte is wasted in a one-dimensional character that seems to have been superficially given a feminist drive, when it would’ve been much more feminist to flesh it out and give it depth and a backstory. Even Kanta Bai (Shalini Vatsa) and Subhadra (Rajshri Deshpande), despite giving hints of intrigue, are relegated to the background. One even wonders why Kukoo couldn’t have been played by a transperson.
And therein lies the problem. World TV is at a stage where representation is of paramount importance. Ensuring that a lead character is as intriguing and realistic as the others, and cast correctly, is vital in a cut-throat entertainment world where one slip-up can make viewers think that they’d rather spend their precious time on one of the umpteen other shows available.
So when the Netflix revolution and the age of peak TV hit India, it had to be with a leap that didn’t just bring us within touching distance of world TV, but neck and neck with it. Sacred Games breaks new ground for Indian TV, but doesn't quite put it on par with the world.