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The Shortcomings Of Sacred Games

For a series that claims to revel in authenticity—with characters that speak their native tongue rather than adjusting it to Hindi or English for a broader audience, Sacred Games fails to be authentic in other regards

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Since its release on July 6th, there has been a lot of rave about Sacred Games (Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap). The series has garnered acclaim from the Indian audience, the Hindi film industry, Indian critics, and even international reviewers and audiences. Even the meme page admins are obsessed with it! But I fear that in the flood of praise coming to the series, reasonable and valid criticisms of the show are being overlooked. Trust me, I liked the show as much as the next guy, but there are some serious shortcomings that need to be addressed. 

One major criticism levied against the series is the misrepresentation of the transgender character Kukoo, who is played by a cisgender actress. While Kubra Sait plays the character amazingly, and it is now difficult to imagine anyone else embodying the character, Kukoo’s portrayal by a transgender actor would have been a huge leap for Indian media and its ideals of representation. Although Kukoo has been shown in a positive light and is accepted by her lover as who she is, casting a transgender actor would have given a voice to the Indian transgender community, not just validation. But honestly, asking for fair representation for transgender roles might be a few too many steps ahead for our industry at the moment. We still struggle with even simpler forms of representation.

For a series that claims to revel in authenticity—with characters that speak their native tongue rather than adjusting it to Hindi or English for a broader audience, Sacred Games fails to be authentic in other regards. Despite casting an genuine Marathi actor for the role of Constable Katekar, the protagonist is still a non-Sikh playing a Sikh inspector. Everytime Saif Ali Khan spoke Punjabi, my body clenched a little, almost as if I was hearing nails on a chalkboard. Something about him playing a Sikh character just didn’t sit right with me. The argument made for misrepresentation in the case of Kukoo’s character, that there are not enough transgender actors, cannot hold in the case of Sartaj Singh. Not only is there an abundance of talented Sikh actors, many are now in the mainstream and hold a sizeable fan following. How many eyeballs does Saif Ali Khan even bring to the screen anymore these days? I’m pretty sure Nawazuddin Siddiqui brought more to the series than Saif did. 

Another major shortfall of the series is the mainly male-driven narrative and the lack of strong female characters. Radhika Apte had been deeply involved in the promotion of the show but her character, Anjali Mathur, remains a shadow of what she had been made out to be. While at first she may appear to be a strong figure, it’s simply a farce. Anjali exists only to advance the narrative and hence the only dimension given to her character is unrelenting determination to solve the case. While we get great insight into the family life and personal struggles of Sartaj, Gaitonde, and even Katekar’s character, Anjali remains a historyless, emotionless, familyless plot device. The other female characters too either only serve as complements to their male counterparts, such as Katekar’s wife, or plot devices, such as Subhadra or Jojo. Women in this show are sadly either flesh, to be consumed or destroyed, or tools to advance the narrative.

There is often an argument of realism put forth in these circumstances to justify the many horrible things we might represent in our media. Realism is used to justify sexism, patriarchy, sexual abuse, and the male gaze. But the argument of realism does not hold here, as the show and its creators make an effort to make several conscious progressive statements throughout the show. The show is progressive in its conversation of religion and politics, and in its openness to explicit language, nudity, and violence. The treatment of Kukoo’s character is a particularly liberal and accepting statement by the show. So why would a character like Gaitonde, who on one side is progressive in terms of religion and transgender rights, be conservative in terms of gender? The duality of Gaitonde’s character reflects the duality of the creators of the show, who at the same time are supporting some progressive agendas while perpetuating other regressive ones.

Sacred Games was certainly a risk, but its success has proved itself as a watershed moment in Indian film and television. Netflix and Vikramaditya Motwane know that they have a winning formula in their hands. But I hope that instead of developing a God complex similar to that of Gaitonde’s, Netflix and Vikramaditya Motwane carry forward to season two with both their successes and their failures in mind. As good as the show has been so far, abhi kaafi kaam baaki hai (there is still a lot of work left).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Vishnu Gupta

Vishnu Gupta is a recent Swarthmore College graduate, filmmaker, photographer, and writer.

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