Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What's it going to be then, eh? On Sacred Games season 2

[Did this short piece – NOT anything like a detailed review – about Sacred Games season 2 for Reader’s Digest. If someone had told me back in the 80s that I would one day write about a profanity-filled gangster show for the cosiest and most non-threatening of family magazines...]

If you only speed-watched Sacred Games season 1 and barely remember the story, don’t leap straight into season 2 because of peer pressure or some weird adrenaline rush: you might feel just as adrift as gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is in the opening scene. Because this season is very much a straight continuation of an intense, detailed, multi-character story that spans two timelines. In the present day – that is, 2017 – cop Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) races against time to prevent nuclear holocaust in Mumbai; meanwhile we get flashbacks to the strange life of Gaitonde as he finds himself being used as a pawn by almost everyone he meets – and is eventually drawn towards a guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) who wants to usher in a new “Satya Yuga”.

Much like The Comedian from Alan Moore’s Watchmen (a book whose opening panels are also weirdly echoed in the opening scene of Season 1), Gaitonde would like to think of himself as the ultimate nihilistic badass – even a dark God – but slowly realises that other people have much more nefarious designs than he does; that he is a softie inside, and a cog in an unimaginably large machine. Much of Sacred Games’s emotional impetus comes from his personal journey as he deals with guilt, paranoia and hubris, and tries to find succour in his relationships with guruji, Jojo (Surveen Chawla) and the city of Mumbai, among others.

But there is also the less dramatic, less author-backed – yet in its own way, compelling – journey of Sartaj, dealing with his own demons and drawn to similar addictions as Gaitonde once was. The first cover of Vikram Chandra’s huge novel had depicted the faces of these two men blurring into each other; though the show has often deviated from the book’s content, it continues to build parallels between the arcs of Ganesh and Sartaj.

For the first four or five episodes, I liked season 2 better than its predecessor: it is more relaxed, allows itself narrative detours, and the Gaitonde sections – including his profane commentary on the 9/11 attacks and his self-mythologizing attempts to get a film made on his life – are often very funny. But my attention waned in the final stretch. This could be a case of diminishing-returns fatigue setting in during a binge-watch – or it may be that the narrative inevitably becomes confusing as the two timelines converge. (When we cross-cut between events of 2017 and 2015 – as opposed to 2017 and the 1980s – it is trickier to keep track of chronology as well as what happened to this or that side-character.) The decision to include one of the book’s “insets” – involving a young girl being separated from her family during the 1947 riots – as late as the final episode, also felt a bit random and tonally off.

Even so, each episode has at least a couple of riveting scenes (don’t miss the opening of episode 7, the final meeting between Ganesh and his guruji) and the quality of the writing and the performances is rarely in doubt. The show’s ending may seem “open”, with an
eye on a possible renewal for Season 3 – but I think it works as a finale on its own terms if you think of it as commentary on the precarious state that India and the world finds itself in today, through ecological destruction as well as majoritarian insistence on “purity”. Armageddon is looming, Sacred Games reminds us in its closing seconds; is there any chance we can pull ourselves back just in time? The final two shots go well with a line from a famous dystopian novel, “What’s it going to be then, eh?”

[Earlier Sacred Games posts: a conversation with Vikram Chandra; religion in Season 1; a speculative piece when the show  was first announced]

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