Last year, Sacred Games was the most highly anticipated thing on Netflix in India. It was the first major Indian web series with many known faces in front of the camera and known names behind it. It also offered hope for detailed, well-researched, and topical content in a country where content creation for the screen is generally of a low standard. Naturally, it made waves even though it fell somewhat short of the international benchmark that the streaming revolution had set.
Season 2, however, takes a leap right above that benchmark to become a show that even Netflix, with its vast library of originals, would be proud to feature as a marquee series. The wrinkles that resulted from trying to give Sartaj’s story the same importance as Gaitonde’s have been ironed out, and a bunch of talented new actors have been introduced to play key characters.
The show picks up exactly where it left off, but puts the present-day plot involving a threat to Mumbai simmering on the back-burner while shifting focus to Gaitonde’s past after his escape from prison. The narrative is structured exceptionally well as it combines two things Netflix’s best shows are known for: an intriguing plot that lends itself to binge-watching supporting in-depth character exploration and touching topics that only the freedom of the Internet allows.
There is almost no major strand in Indian politics since the 90s that does not find a place. The sharp communal lines, politicians openly taking a majoritarian stance, and simmering international tensions all lend themselves to either the primary plot or a key sub-plot. The makers go so far as to include a lynching scene that captures the brutality and ugliness of the celebrating mob without it seeming gratuitous or perverse.
The economy of the writing is seen in how Katekar’s death in season 1 has added further to Sartaj’s guilt and burden. It has also spawned a subplot involving his older son who is now a prime target for Hindu radicalisation.
One of the hardest things to do while writing a thriller is walking the tightrope between suspense and surprise. Things to come have to be hinted at without revealing exactly what is to come. Pankaj Tripathi’s Guruji appeared in season 1 only for a few minutes, but the writers brilliantly foreshadowed the enormity of his role in the plot without tipping their hand. They’ve done the same thing with Sartaj’s arc in season 2.
But even more brilliant is how well they’ve dealt with Ganesh Gaitonde. The gangster with the God complex in season 1 struggles to have the same larger-than-life presence in the new world he inhabits. Tamed by some, fooled by many, and driven to paranoia with a loosening grip on reality, Gaitonde’s character arc is a masterclass in how to dive deep into a toxic character without glorifying it.
Pankaj Tripathi has said that he prefers to play calm, laid-back characters. Guruji is in the same mould. Tripathi exudes calm and omnipresence integral to his character but also a glint of impending doom. The character is the epitome of good writing and acting, combined seamlessly. Kalki Koechlin plays Batya, a woman with a wayward and violent past. From her body language and manner of speaking, you get the sense of her journey despite a lack of screen time. She also does a great job in providing specificity of background to her character with her accent.
Nawazuddin owned season 1 and he owns season 2 as well. He has the screen presence and voice of a star balanced extremely well with restraint and commitment to the character’s emotional core, even when it demands shedding all appearances of stylisation or ‘cool’. You get a great sense of vulnerability, guilt, and paranoia, the three feelings that define his character this season.
Just like in season 1, Saif Ali Khan is the weakest link. He is neither able to locate Sartaj’s emotional core or provide any specificity to the character even when the story delves into Sartaj. But the writers seem to be cognisant of that as Sartaj is turned into a largely functional character through which the audience is connected to the present-day plot.
It is commendable that Netflix has spared no expense on season 2. Guruji’s ashram is designed to reflect the opulence and immense power of spiritual leaders. The season has an excellent score that builds a lot of tension. Mumbai’s spaces have also been captured extremely well, and the city is often a character in its own right.
Even more commendable are creative and casting choices. There are clear hints of homosexual relations which are not shown pointedly as if to showcase progressive liberalism but are treated as integral parts of the story. Amruta Subhash plays Kusum Devi Yadav, a R&AW agent. Her character is extremely realistic, and the very act of choosing a woman to play her is bound to be empowering. The character of the nuclear weapons expert, Ponnuthai (Mahita Suresh), has also achieved the same thing, and Jojo (Surveen Chawla) has a lot of screen time this season.
With some incredible performances, great production value, a thrilling plot on the tapestry of India’s complex socio-political issues, and some extremely progressive choices this season, Sacred Games has firmly put itself in the league of extraordinary Netflix shows that deserve to be watched world over.