Religion Is a Cannibalistic, Self-Replenishing Beast in Netflix’s 'Sacred Games'

The platform's first original Indian series shows how easily new gods may replace the old ones.
Image: Netflix

Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is such a multi-layered novel, rich in detail and filled with subplots and insets, that scriptwriters adapting it for an eight-episode, 400-minute series wouldn’t have to think up new material if they didn’t want to. But one of the joys of the new Netflix adaptation is that, while being respectful of and attentive towards its source text, it makes small alterations—shifting vantage points, finding new ways to cut between the stories of gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and policeman Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan).


For instance, the series retains the book’s horrifying—but also nihilistically funny—opening image of a Pomeranian being hurled out of a Bombay high-rise window. But there’s a subtle difference: in the novel, this scene is part of the narrative and introduces us to Sartaj, who is half-heartedly investigating the incident of the defenestrated dog. Whereas the series uses it more abstractly, to segue into another bloody image—a wounded woman crawling away from her to-be murderer—and also as a visual accompaniment to Gaitonde’s profane-philosophical voiceover about the indifference of God. “ Bhagwaan ko maante ho? Bhagwaan ko lund pharak nahin padta.” (“Do you believe in God? God doesn’t give a fuck.”)

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God and religion were already important elements in Sacred Games the novel—mainly in Gaitonde’s journey from being agnostic to becoming involved with the faith business as an underworld don, and influenced by a “Guruji”. But it probably needed a Netflix original series—as opposed to a feature film subject to regular censorship—to get away with lines like the one mentioned above, with a strong cuss word in the same sentence as “Bhagwaan”. Just as notably, the series uses its own methods to stress the idea of religion as something that can be both nurturing and cannibalistic: a beast that consumes innocents, while providing opportunities for the shrewd.

In this context, one of the show’s intriguing departures from the book is its use of the Atapi-Vatapi legend about demon brothers (episode three is named for them) who invite weary travelers home for a meal, feed them generously, and then, using the dark arts, tear them asunder. Writers Smita Singh, Varun Grover and Vasant Nath turn this old tale into a metaphor for religion itself, drawing people into its fold, offering them hospitality and a sense of belonging, before destroying them. " Dharmon ka roop yeh hai," a savant (the brilliant Pankaj Tripathi) explains to his followers, " Raahgir ko prem se ghar bulao, phir usski aatma par kabzaa karo."


Image: Ishika Mohan Motwane/Netflix

Closely linked to this theme is the idea, present throughout the Gaitonde story, that new deities can supplant the old ones; that fresh cults may be created around politicians, gangsters, swamis. Among Gaitonde’s first blasphemous acts—one that will ironically set him on the path to becoming God-like—is to conceal chicken bones in the rice served at a “pure vegetarian” restaurant for Brahmins, where he works as a waiter. Later, by killing his larger-than-life mentor Salim Kaka, he symbolically absorbs the dead man’s powers and aura, and takes his place.

Still later, as he becomes the leader of a gang that protects Hindu interests, his career runs parallel to—and comes to define—the politicisation of religion and the rise of hardline communalism in 1980s India. The personal and the political merge as Gaitonde narrates his story, making colourful, throwaway remarks about minority appeasement by Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress, the growing influence of the TV serial Ramayana, and the subsequent rise to power of those who would destroy mosques or commit honour killings.

Image: Ishika Mohan Motwane/Netflix

Little wonder that the series has plenty of religious iconography, much of it startling in its juxtaposing of the old with the new. The tacky promotion for a cola drink (Gaitonde’s own brand, “Apna Cola”) involves a Ramayana-inspired scene where the wounded Lakshmana recovers—and jumps into his brother Rama’s arms—after drinking the beverage. Shortly after this, we see the actors playing the mythological heroes, still in costume, dancing at a very modern party. One episode is titled “Halahala”, after the poison that threatens to envelop the world when Gods and demons churn the ocean together for nectar (another reminder that when it comes to religion, it is never easy to separate the bad from the good). The poison in this case may be a roomful of fake currency discovered by the investigators.

But for me, one of the show’s emblematic images is, again, one that doesn’t come from the book. It involves an actress named Nayanika (Geetanjali Thapa), who plays the lead role in a mythological TV soap about the goddess Shakti. We see a glimpse of an amusing scene from this serial, where she fells portly demons with laser beams from her forehead; but it turns out that Nayanika herself has long been exploited and manipulated, and there is a short but vivid nightmare scene where—dressed in full Shakti garb—she has her throat cut from behind by her underworld patron.

In that one frame, we have goddess and gangster in an unholy pact, a traditional deity sharing space with a modern power-wielder who bends religion to his own ends. As Gaitonde tells us elsewhere, "Kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki apun hi bhagwaan hai.” (“Sometimes I feel like I am God.”) But by the end, even he knows that Gods are unmade just as easily as they are made.

Follow Jai Arjun Singh on Twitter.