Unfolding like a pulpy retelling of a religious epic, Netflix’s Sacred Games season 2 is a more complex experience than the first, without ever compromising on the populism that made it such a phenomenon in the first place. It is dense without ever feeling overwhelming, thrilling but never sleazy; a thoroughly entertaining example of a television series operating at the peak of its potential.
Three episodes of Sacred Games 2 were provided for preview - make of that what you will - and this should be read as a review of those three episodes only.
Watch the Sacred Games season 2 trailer here
Sacred Games, right out of the gate, returns with a swagger that could put even Ganesh Gaitonde to shame - a sign of confidence for a show that is equally adept at ‘dialoguebaazi’ as it is at quoting the Epic of Gilgamesh. There is, in fact, a scene that combines both, and perfectly captures the essence of season two.
“What do we learn from Gilgamesh?” Pankaj Tripathi’s Guruji asks his followers, in a tone that recalls the mellifluous musicality of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Met not with raised hands but with devout silence, Guruji proceeds to answer his own question. “The pursuit of power and control is as futile as the pursuit of immortality,” he says, like Rajneesh, sprinkling his sermons with the occasional smutty word.
There is, of course, a reason why Guruji is invoking the Epic of Gilgamesh. In addition to being perhaps the oldest surviving work of literature, whose themes are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago, it is also a giant metaphor for the journey on which the formidable gangster Ganesh Gaitonde finds himself.
When we saw him last, he was breaking out of a jail. Having suffered terribly during his stay, he emerges into the sunlight in the first episode of Sacred Games 2, lit by the fire of revenge. The new season finds Gaitonde in direct confrontation with his own legend, having come to the crippling realisation that he isn’t the ‘sarva shaktishaali eklauta bhagwan’ that he thought he was.
He is stripped of his power; his vast empire, built off the back of violence and vengeance, has been wrenched from his hands. But most distressingly for him, he has been uprooted from his beloved Bombay and sent to the faraway shores of Mombasa, Kenya, with not even his buddy Bunty by his side.
This is one of the many examples of how showrunner Vikramaditya Motwane is continuing the process of deviating from the text, perhaps in preparation of a future in which he doesn’t have Vikram Chandra’s source novel to draw from. In the book, Gaitonde literally finds himself at sea.
It is in Kenya that the always agnostic Gaitonde is offered his first whiff of faith. Of course, he is no stranger to the divisive power of religion - like season one, fear-mongering is an important theme this time around as well - but this is certainly the first time he is seeing religion through the prism of a vulnerable man, looking, like everyone else, for a crutch to rely upon. And like any spiritual leader worth his salt, Guruji lures him into his world like a saucy seductress beckoning a bereaved businessman.
Meanwhile, a lifetime away, Saif Ali Khan’s Sartaj Singh is still trying to solve the mystery that Gaitonde has left behind. Both men, divided as they are by duty, are alike in ways neither would like to admit; their journeys converging at the feet of the same man, and his consiglieri.
She’s called Batya Abelman, and is played by the always excellent Kalki Koechlin. She’s an enigmatic woman who appears in both the Gaitonde and the Sartaj timelines, and is another of Motwane’s additions, not to be found in the book, neither in flesh nor as a facsimile. While on paper she is to Guruji what Maa Anand Sheela was to Rajneesh, there is perhaps more to her than meets the eye.
As with season one, everyone involved seems to be united by a shared passion for the project. And while it may be easy to be distracted by the sheer power of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, I must remind you that were it not for Saif Ali Khan’s generous performance as the rather passive Sartaj - he is, once again, more often than not compelled into action rather than driven by a desire to take the bull by its horns - neither Gaitonde nor Guruji would pop as wonderfully as they do. As an actor, Saif is keenly aware of the role Sartaj plays in the story, and shows no hesitation in surrendering himself fully to it.
But the unheralded champion of this enterprise, I believe, is editor Aarti Bajaj. Her seamless storytelling genuinely made me rethink how television is made - it is a rather unconventional strategy for two directors to tackle two different storylines, hoping that what they turn in can be blended into a whole, but Bajaj makes it seem like it should, in fact, be the norm.
It must also be mentioned that a behind-the-scenes switcheroo has been performed as discreetly as hotel staff cleaning up a room after a particularly eventful evening. Director Neeraj Ghaywan, who made one of the greatest debuts of the decade with Masaan, has replaced Motwane in the director’s chair this time around, and has brought with himself a style that is in line with the broader vision, and yet fiercely individualistic. A complicated chase scene that he directs is so spectacularly staged that I couldn’t help but rewind it and watch again.
Meanwhile, Ghaywan’s co-director Anurag Kashyap, is clearly in his element, and yet unafraid of pushing himself out of his comfort zone. His handling of the Gaitonde timeline is replete with his knack for producing high-art masala. There is an odd elegance to his images, a major leap from his trademark slapdash style.
The second season of Sacred Games is a perceptive examination of how individuals work within organisations; of how everyone, regardless of their position, is in some manner or the other controlled by someone else. It is about the banality of evil and the power of religion, and how, brought together, they can produce a chemical reaction of nuclear proportions.