Sacred Games Season 2 and the Problem With Its Replaceable Women

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Sacred Games Season 2 and the Problem With Its Replaceable Women

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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njali Mathur (played in the first season by Radhika Apte) features in precisely zero scenes, and yet the ghost of the slain RAW agent haunts the second season of Sacred Games. She is invoked in the initial minutes of “Matsya” – written by Dhruv Narang and directed by Anurag Kashyap and Neeraj Ghaywan – this season’s opening episode. In it, an Intelligence Bureau officer informs a room full of cops that Anjali was investigating Hizbuddin, a terrorist organisation, which as we gradually learn, is behind the imminent nuclear attack on Mumbai that Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) warned Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) about. 

A few episodes later, her diary is discovered and handed over to Sartaj, who relies almost exclusively on its contents to apprehend the men working for the terrorist cell. Even when they manage their biggest breakthrough – making contact with Shahid Khan (Ranvir Shorey), the mastermind behind the attack – it’s because of the numbers Mathur noted down in her diary. Although Sartaj and Majid eventually locate the bomb, it is Anjali who technically solves the case. 

It struck me as odd, this decision to have a dead woman be the eyes and ears of an investigation that she can’t be a part of anymore. Sacred Games omits her but more importantly, maintains an illusion of including her. This route (the second season has been adapted by Varun Grover, Dhruv Narang, Nihit Bhave, and Pooja Tolani) of conveniently using a female character as a crutch to serve the story would have been a minor annoyance, had it been an exception. Instead, it’s the beginning of the new season continuing the show’s pattern of underserving its women.

Last year, when the spectacular first season of Sacred Games opened to unanimous acclaim, it was underlined by a lingering criticism that the makers were baiting the idea of a strong woman without really following through with it. Much of it stemmed from the fact that the show reinforced the trope of female pluckiness as women behaving like men and that most of these women faced unfortunate ends: Mathur was shot in the head just when her arc was threatening to go to interesting directions, Kukoo was killed in gunfire as was Subhadra, and Shalini ended up as a widow.

The most flattering thing that can be said about the second season of Sacred Games is that it makes room for a few women.

Even if one were to argue that who gets to live and die in a fictional show about a hyper-masculine universe is an unfair metric to judge its intentions towards women, it’s worth noting that barring Anjali and Kanta Bai, the existence of a female character populating the universe of Sacred Games broke no new ground last season. These were the usual suspects: the devoted wife punished by unspeakable tragedy (Shalini, Subhadra) or women who ironically represented the ultimate male fantasy by refusing to be yet another submissive male fantasy (Kukoo, Zoya). Moreover, the individualities of these women felt thwarted by the show unequivocally categorising them as romantic interests. Only Kanta Bai and Anjali (and for a brief while, Bunty’s sister) occupied the other end of the spectrum. They offered a curious portrait of women in professions negotiating situations that demanded them to mimic the behaviour of men in order to assert authority. But even then, Sacred Games struggled to fully explore their inner lives.

A year later, the increased focus on the female cast of the show feels like a direct consequence of that criticism. Unfortunately, the show fails to make its women be an indicator of anything other than a hollow response to the politics of representation. The second season of Sacred Games – which doesn’t depend on the book in the fashion of Game of Thrones – introduces two new female characters, expands on two existing ones, and is rounded off by a bunch of forgettable extended female cameos. This time around, there’s no cheap death and yet the new season can be accused of something worse: falling into the trap of mistaking the mere presence of female characters as doing justice to them. It uses their inclusion to distract from the lack of exposition. The most flattering thing that can be said about the second season of Sacred Games is that it makes room for a few women. But what is crucial, is how it bars them access from the actual party.

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Even more disposable is Batya’s underwritten track, a character who exists as a response to the widespread popularity of Ma Anand Sheela and not specifically to the needs of the show’s plot.

Netflix

The new additions to the show are Kusum Devi Yadav (Amruta Subhash), a mysterious undercover RAW agent who recruits Gaitonde in Kenya right after he is smuggled out of prison in 1994 and Batya Abelman (Kalki Koechlin) a half-Jewish and half-Palestinian second-in-command at Guruji’s ashram, who goes from disciple to calling the shots at the commune. Incidentally, both Batya and Kusum don’t feature in the source material but are present in both timelines in the TV adaptation.

On paper, they come across as ambitious characters, an antithesis to the gangster drama’s inherent complacency of being unable to imagine a female character in the show’s universe beyond a wife or a romantic interest. But on screen, these two characters lose their inherent flavour at the expense of customary navel-gazing. Like Mathur, they are at once, included while simultaneously being omitted. Sacred Games does this by having these women at the heart of significant plot-twists to proclaim their indispensability. But it’s a move that feels dishonest, given that the show rarely engages with either of them, pushing them to the background at their convenience or discarding them abruptly.

Consider Kusum, who starts off as a beguiling character, a woman who thrives in her presumed meekness. She hides behind her oversized glasses and unsure body language but as we discover, this lack of urgency to exert her power is merely a ruse to remain undetected. She dominates Gaitonde on more than one occasion like her personal puppet, coming across as someone who is keenly aware of exactly which strings to pull, even in her sleep. It’s inexplicable then, that for most of the show, she seems to be doing nothing more than just existing: After the initial two episodes, Sacred Games betrays cluelessness when it comes to imbuing her with purpose. Her arc is rendered pointless – it hardly goes beyond repetitive exchanges with Gaitonde, who attempts to double-cross her and is then promptly put in line by her. And the show’s reluctance to get inside her head is illuminated in the present timeline where she is older, suffering from dementia and makes an appearance only to offer clues to Sartaj. The show shies away from delving into the years in between, providing no explanation for how she is bedridden. Like Mathur, even her diary is used to solve a gap in the investigation, even when she remains missing from the action.

Even more disposable is Batya’s underwritten track, a character who exists as a response to the widespread popularity of the resurgence of godmen and their women devotees in popular culture and not foremost, to the needs of the plot. Throughout the show, her unwavering devotion to Guruji remains a mystery as does the evolution of her transformation from a troubled young woman to an enabler of religious extremism. The fact that she is in charge in the present timeline with Sartaj is entirely unconvincing for the show makes her unreadable: Is she sinister or just brainwashed? We never quite know. The show’s writers employ a sly way to make her come across as more important than she actually is: Besides giving her as much screen-time as the show’s leads, like Gaitonde and Guruji, they make her deal solely in monologues. But these are vapid lines ( “I was born a conflict”, “Don’t counter instinct with intelligence”) that do little to inform our understanding of her motivations. Instead, this lack of subtext makes Batya impossibly robotic. 

Sacred Games omits its women but more importantly, maintains an illusion of including them.

Besides, both Kusum and Batya have no urgent stakes in the show’s proceedings, best evidenced in the curious distance that Sacred Games maintains from them: We see them but we never really get to know them or a sense of their personal investment in the larger scheme of things. It’s a similar pattern Sacred Games follows with Jojo (Surveen Chawla), who is restored in this season after being killed off in the last season and Zoya, the Pakistani escort turned Bollywood actress. Like Batya and Kusum, their uneven backstories – replete with a tragedy, suicidal tendencies, and moral ambivalence – aren’t particularly riveting or memorable, although the actresses essaying these parts are all in fine form. Then, there are the show’s minor female characters, who are saddled with cliches: There’s a suicide, one woman is widowed, another’s pregnancy is used to explain the mental state of her ex-husband, and naturally, there’s a wife of yet another gangster who embarks on an extramarital affair that costs her dearly. 

Throughout, Sacred Games remains less invested in etching out fully-realised female characters within the confines of their screen time and their supporting arc. In comparison, even a minor male character in the show, is infused with characteristic detail – take the Muslim man whose younger brother goes missing, for instance. The argument that Sacred Games is foremost, a masculine universe by design is valid, yet given the credibility and the vision of its makers, it can no longer be a sufficient alibi for the show looking at its women as fillers, designed to placate.

In its second season, Sacred Games then, becomes a show that looks at female representation as a liability; its depiction of women is underlined by a recognisable disinterest that hinders the audience from being genuinely invested in their fate. That even after two seasons, Sacred Games remains conspicuous by its inability to think beyond an inherently masculine universe is inarguably, the biggest letdown of its ambition.

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