‘Sacred Games’, a coming of age for Indian television

While the series provides some pleasures, its numerous historical and political references could be lost on a Western audience

Updated - July 15, 2018 01:10 am IST

Published - July 15, 2018 12:15 am IST

The unfamiliar thrumming is hard to identify at first. As it grows louder coming over the hill, you guess it’s not something on the ground but something aerial. Suddenly, the celestial war drumming is right overhead and you can see the three machines that are aurally carpet-bombing north London. The creatures look like a combination of helicopters and old turbo-prop airplanes, except the twin engines on each are pointed upwards, comically priapic, the wings extending beyond the propellers looking extremely small, somewhat like a fat man with tiny hands. The loud things head southwards and then begin to curve back. As I walk to my friend’s house near Finsbury Park, the choppers seem to be going around, keeping me in the centre of the circle, and also coming lower and lower.

Noisy copters and baby blimps

I ring my friend’s doorbell and he lets me in. It seems odd that the house isn’t shaking with the copter noise. “Aliens. And it’s clearly you they are after,” my friend says. I shake my head. Could it be the RAF showing off some new toys for its 100th anniversary? We check on the Net and identify the machines as V-22 Ospreys belonging to Donald Trump’s U.S. Marine Corps escort. The jokes are already flying about on the Net: “Is Trump trying to bomb us or is it Boris Johnson attempting a military coup?” And: “This is how Putin will make the U.K. submit — via a pawn POTUS and his Air Force.” Then: “First Hitler’s Stukas, now Trump’s Ospreys, but we shall never surrender!” This last comparison is actually quite apt: the Stuka dive bomber was designed to make a terrorising wail as it plunged to bomb hapless civilians. No doubt the good folks at Bell Boeing kept that in mind while designing the sound output of their Ospreys. But what was it that Trump’s (or the mangled apricot hellbeast as he has memorably been called) security escort was looking for exactly? The V-22s had already been seen over different parts of London and its vicinity, but this evening they seemed to be concentrating on Finsbury Park. We concluded that they were letting the people at the Finsbury Park mosque know they were around. “Maybe they can smell missiles. Or rogue nukes,” said my friend. “Or Trump baby balloons. Maybe they are here to shoot down the blimp,” I added.

Some thoughts on ‘Sacred Games’

Talking about rogue nukes, my Indian host and I have been binge watching Netflix’s Sacred Games . This is not the place for a proper review of the series based on Vikram Chandra’s novel, but watching the episodes sitting in London at this moment does throw up some thoughts.

First of all, for Indians of a certain generation, such as my host pal and myself, the series provides some real pleasures. There is the tectonic layering of Bombay from the late ’70s till now, plotting and action which is understated when compared to most Bollywood films, and the background score by Alokananda Dasgupta, which is a real triumph. Saif Ali Khan’s overweight cop Sartaj Singh is the most convincing role the actor has played since, perhaps, Omkara , showing us that when the ball is in his hitting zone, he can score heavily. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde has moments of great, powerful acting and moments of OTT bathos, but it’s true that Nawazuddin has the best lines and comic moments.

Most importantly though, this series is a kind of coming of age for Indian cinema and TV in that it brings in real historical events and political figures and deals with them without kid gloves. We are used to seeing European and American films and TV series depicting historical leaders critically and making fun of them — of U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, and British Prime Ministers Churchill, Aden, Macmillan and Thatcher, for instance. This is how it should be. It is pleasing that the Congress, specifically Rajiv Gandhi, and the Hindutva brigade, with Advani’s role underlined, catch it a bit in the series. Bal Thackeray is missing, yet the most present in fictionalised form. Hindutva terror leaders start coming to the fore by the end of Season 1, something I will happily take given the rarity of such portrayals.

However, the references to recent Indian history and the intricacies of Indian politics will be totally lost on the normal Western viewer. If you’re someone who has studied India in your undergraduate days, you may get some stuff, but mostly the very texturing my friend and I are so happy to see in a Indian work of filmed fiction will work as an almost opaque filler for most foreign viewers. The Shah Bano case, the Mandal upheavals and the Babri destruction may hold pivotal value for us in following the story of Sacred Games , but the realisation also hits home that, at least in the near future, these references will always be carpet-bombed by the noise of events closer to home in Europe and north America.

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