Sacred Games is already facing a legal battle for its unapologetic look into Mumbai’s underworld
“Do you believe in God?” asks the first line of Sacred Games, Netflix India’s first original series – the show which, in under a month, has broken both records and boundaries by addressing everything from religion, gender identity and personal sacrifice.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Vikram Chandra, the thriller examines India’s underworld. Saif Ali Khan plays the role of Sartaj Singh, a cop enduring turbulence in his professional and personal life, while also coping with the mystery of an imminent threat to Mumbai’s safety. Running alongside this storyline is that of Ganesh Gaitonde, a crime lord portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is revealing the tale of his past to Sartaj, and to viewers.
Think Narcos: a show set in its own country, in its own language, yet appealing to a global audience. And the show marks Netflix’s full-fledged interest in India. In February, the company’s co-founder and CEO revealed that he sees their next 100 million subscribers coming from the country.
Generally, Indian television consists of reality television or ‘serials’, both of which can be described as soapy dramas, and it’s deeply censored. Anything that the Central Board of Film Certification in India finds offensive – like sex, nudity or violence – is at risk of being removed. Movies showing drug use, for example, have come under considerable scrutiny. So it’s no wonder then that in a space free from censorship, like the internet, companies like Amazon and Netflix have been able to enjoy greater freedom, with Sacred Games leading the liberated charge.
This is also probably why, just days after its release, there is already legal controversy surrounding the show. An Indian National Congress party member lodged a complaint against Netflix for insulting former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In episode four, Gaitonde refers to Gandhi as a “prick”, resulting in the show being surrounded in instant controversy.
Sacred Games is a far cry from soapy serials, just as it differs from the candy-coated features Bollywood is prone to produce. “We rarely see the contradictions of a place like Bombay,” Khan told the Guardian. “However, there is a beauty in those contradictions that we rarely see on screen, and I hope we have captured that.”
Cinematically, the series is rich with the contrasts of India. There’s the squalor of slums, the darkness of poverty and the realities of the lower middle-class. In smaller doses, we see the glitter and opuluence of Mumbai’s rich and wealthy. In equal parts, it is grotesque and gorgeous. There are long streams of stunningly-captured scenes, of the city and its many inhabitants.
RELIGION & POLITICS
The petition against Sacred Games states that it “has inappropriate dialogues, political attacks”. This is probably because the show never lets religion or politics stray far from the plot. Insights into Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism are often included, all of which are major religions in India. About 80 per cent of the population is Hindu, with Islam and Christianity following as the second and third most-followed faiths. In the show, there are characters who are deeply religious, then those who believe their respective faiths have failed them. Then there are the ones, like Gaitonde, who inform his gang members: “I am your one true God”. The show even mocks television shows in India that depict ancient mythological tales and have gurus relaying religious advice. Politics plays its role in this: corrupt politicians are shown manipulating the people, using religion to their advantage.
VIOLENCE & SEXUALITY
What's most striking about Sacred Games is how plainly everything is presented. Although Indian cinema and television have become more progressive, it is almost constantly subjected to censorship. Violence and sexuality are rarely explicitly shown, especially when it comes to tackling certain ‘taboo’ or darker matters. This is not the case in Sacred Games. One of the show’s most-discussed sub-narratives focusses on a transgender character, Kukoo, and a full-frontal nude scene. While India officially recognises transgender and intersex people as the “third sex”, and has done since 2014, there is a long history of violence against them within the country. This depiction itself was monumental. Also, the show’s violence resembles what you’d find in Game of Thrones. From the first scene itself (a Pomeranian is being thrown out of a high-rise window) to every gun fight and brawl – it is unflinchingly gory. Sex and nudity are much more explicitly portrayed than they have been otherwise on Indian television.