Karl Marx once wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". Religion like opium can bring temporary relief and create an illusion of better things to come. In Sacred Games 2, now streaming on Netflix, this opiate is both literal and metaphorical. A drink made from pink berries that is an effective and profitable hallucinogen, and religion itself, that has created addicts and caused wars, all in the name of ironically a loving God.
Season 1 of Sacred Games ended on a note of high drama with less than 15 days left for Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) to save Mumbai from an impending disaster. He gets the tip from runaway gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who has been dodging the law for almost two decades.
Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan and Anurag Kashyap, who handle the Sartaj and Gaitonde tracks respectively, and written by Varun Grover, Dhruv Narang, Nihit Bhave and Pooja Tolani, Season 2 takes us far beyond the seedy bylanes of Mumbai. The show is mounted on a much larger scale this time with characters escaping to countries abroad and operating global networks.
While in the present-day Sartaj is asked to head a special investigation team to crack the case, in the past timeline starting from 1994, Gaitonde escapes from jail to find himself imprisoned on a boat in the middle of an ocean. His dreams of becoming the great white shark of Mumbai again are shattered by Kusum Devi Yadav (Amruta Subhash), a RAW operative who makes him her asset in Mombassa in Kenya. Yadav tells Gaitonde about a new kid on the terror block Shahid Khan (Ranvir Shorey) who has founded his own terror cell in India hoping to create Ghazwa-e-Hind or an Islamic takeover of India. While Gaitonde works for Yadav to stay alive and in the game, his frustration over not wielding power anymore takes him to Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi), a mysterious godman who aspires to take the world back from Kaliyug to Satyug, or an era of peace and purity. Are these both seperate intentions, or do these nefarious men have common interests?
Season 1 served as exposition, and the show creators pack Season 2 with backstories, flashbacks within flashbacks, and subplots. Some are quite unnecessary like the one involving Jojo’s (Surveen Chawla) guilt over past wrongdoings, or Sartaj trying to get his wife back. Ironically, by populating its landscape with multiple characters and their cronies, the show spreads itself too thin and the pace and takes a serious beating. We get some much needed answers to what is threatening to destroy Mumbai and who are the people responsible, but the many narrative distractions dilute the fear factor considerably.
The present day timeline was filmed in slow-burn style in Season 1 to set up Sartaj’s depressed state, but in Season 2, it translates to a lack of urgency. Why throw in an anniversary party, and recollect marital arguments when doomsday is around the corner? However, when it recreates a mob-lynching like the ones we have unfortunately seen many times in the past couple of years, the series really punches you in the gut and shows brilliance. There is also a poignant dialogue between Majid Khan (Aamir Bashir) and his wife where he comments on how his name causes half the people to use him while the other half to suspect him. I really wish there were more such visceral and powerful moments across this season.
Given the controversy caused by the mention of Rajiv Gandhi’s name last year, this season sticks to spoofing and alluding to real people and events. So there is a director Ram G Verma who makes a gangster film on Gaitonde’s life but is clueless about filmmaking, and an Aditya Johar who is mentioned as a big filmmaker. Guruji’s ashram abroad, his sermons on sex as a spiritual experience, and his close relationship with Batya Abelman (Kalki Koechlin) are definitely inspired by Osho and Maa Ananda Sheela. However, what makes the series engaging is its ensemble cast of old and new actors. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan reprise their roles of Gaitonde and Sartaj. Nawazuddin gets a larger time frame and scale of action to work with and he uses it to his advantage. Saif keeps Sartaj consistent to the build-up from Season 1 but can’t add nuance given the short timeline he is limited to. Pankaj Tripathi who was the big addition to the cast this year proves yet again that there is no role he can't do. A delicious mix of creepy and cunning, Tripathi imbues Guruji with a hypnotic voice, great poise, and a peculiar smile that both scares and charms, effectively masking his mania.
While the main players manage to sustain interest, it’s the supporting cast that grabs the eyeballs again. A special mention has to be made of the wide variety of female characters in this season. Amruta Subhash is fantastic as Kusum Devi Yadav, and she overshadows Siddiqui in their scenes together matching his bluster with confidence and restraint. Surveen Chawla as Jojo is memorable, and it's hard to imagine that Chawla actually started her career in over-the-top daily soaps. Elnaaz Norouzi impresses as Zoya Mirza/Jamila going from vulnerable to vixen effortlessly, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Kalki Koechlin. Though she is the best known female actor in the ensemble, Koechlin’s performance is inconsistent, as is her accent that sounds more or less French in every scene. Neeraj Kabi playing Parulkar is brilliant in the few scenes he has and I wish they had offered a better arc to Bunty(Jatin Sarna) and Kanta (Shalini Vatsa) whose loyalty to Gaintonde is unwavering.
While it will always suffer the curse of comparison to its predecessor, Sacred Games 2 does come into its own when it shows us the different ways in which religion and godmen find their addicts. Poverty, illiteracy, egoism, and a constant need for validation or self-worth are the many routes intolerance and hatred take to find a place in our hearts. The references to history, mythology and global events of terror and religious discord (far more on the nose this season) include the characters of Sacred Games in a larger universe of flawed men and women doomed to repeat the mistakes of both men and gods. As Gaitonde quips, religion is a game hundreds of years old, and we will we be playing the contest of 'most sacred of them all' till kingdom come.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.
Saraswati Datar studied screenwriting and filmmaking and worked with mainstream TV channels in Mumbai as a writer and producer. She now freelances as a columnist and scriptwriter working with digital publications in India.