Ram Gopal Varma shows up in season 2 of Sacred Games. Well, not the man himself, but a director called Ram G. Varma who shares the real RGV’s endless preoccupation with his mobile phone. This Varma is forced at gunpoint to make a film glorifying the life and times of gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, and while Vijay Maurya, who plays the director, nails the accent and the scowl, the caricature is cosmetic. The director is shown as unconcerned and clueless, and the film he makes is tacky in a traditional way, disappointingly free of Varma’s own trademark weaknesses and weirdness. This feels like a put-down for the heck of it.
Netflix’s first Indian original series returned for its second season on 15 August. I watched the first three episodes, but they are mere antipasto: They provide but a taste. What does stand out is an overriding new element: parody. The first season, which got into trouble for calling the late Rajiv Gandhi a “fattu"—the subtitles translated that as “wimp"—engaged with reality, hiding narrative red herrings amid real riots and revolutions. Gaitonde’s story mirrored the rise and fall of Mumbai itself. For those who may not have seen the show based on Vikram Chandra’s best-selling novel—or those who have forgotten the first season, as ponderous as it was impressive—it provided an intricate take on gangland hierarchies, at the world beneath the mobsters that gives rise to them.
The early episodes of this season, in stark contrast, appear content to be spoofy. A fundamental thread involving Pankaj Tripathi plays out like a Sacred Games cover version of Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary about the Osho ashram being set up in the US.
We learn about Guruji, the godman played by Tripathi, and his ashram, where people drink a blood-red hallucinogen and bliss out while listening to Sanskrit-laced aphorisms. We meet this Guruji in real time, as he develops an omniscient rapport with Gaitonde (played by a florid shirt-wearing Nawazuddin Siddiqui having a whale of a time in Mombasa, of all places), but also as a dearly departed sage, as Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) in a current timeline tries to explore the link between Guruji and Gaitonde, both now dead.
We are told something went very wrong 20 years ago, when Guruji was setting up a foreign ashram, and the Wild Wild Country alarm bells ring louder with this unsubtle allusion to the mass-murder scandal that resulted from Osho’s move to Oregon. The teller of stories in the present, post-Guruji world is Batya Abelman, evidently this world’s Ma Anand Sheela. She’s played compellingly by Kalki Koechlin, busying her fingers with origami as she speaks and gesticulating when she sermonizes: When she speaks about the Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh, for instance, she appears to be balancing words with her hands, as if holding invisible scales.
Amruta Subhash is smashing as a RAW agent who has the measure of Gaitonde. Tripathi is the best, an ever-fascinating performer, wielding a beatific smile like a dagger. His Guruji is meditative and manipulative, an even-toned speaker who projects great deliberation behind his words—as if he has always known the secrets to life, but only just discovered how best to phrase it so puny humans will get the gist. His portentous Hindi and Sanskrit are a treat (at one point he speaks of God being aroused to the point of orgasm by His own creation, and the phrase he uses is the delightful-sounding “swa-vibhoot ho gaye") but it is when he speaks in halting yet articulate English that the Osho parallels can be drawn more cleanly.
There is something to be said for intelligent allegories between real people and fictionalized counterparts, but so far Sacred Games seems to be engaging on a superficial level. Vijay Maurya’s RGV is a solid impersonation but it doesn’t delve into the real Varma or his methods—unlike, say, the way Varma himself did in Rangeela, when he put Gulshan Grover in a Spielberg-ian baseball cap to cock a snook at the exaggerated bluster of fellow gangster-movie maker, Vidhu Vinod Chopra (allegedly, anyway). All this series has to say about Varma is that he likes Sridevi. And texting.
One result of all this nudge-nudge-wink-wink spoofing is that Sacred Games loses tonal balance between the stories of Gaitonde and Singh. The Gaitonde sections feature most of the parodies and end up comedic and even silly, giving Siddiqui a lot to play with, while the Singh sections—at least in the opening episodes—feel dull and undercooked. I yawned every time Saif Ali Khan appeared on screen. I breezed through the three episodes in one painless go, a change from the heavy-set first season, but no plot development or gangland machination stood out as especially clever or memorable. Sacred Games has always been hard-boiled pulp masquerading as literary fiction, but this time it feels particularly scrambled.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.