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Women in Netflix’s Sacred Games act as motivators for men, their own motivation is a mystery

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Sacred Games allows so much space for lush, immersive storytelling, but all we get are, well, dead women.

Sacred Games is unapologetic in what it wants to say, and is a grand, worthy entrance for Indian Netflix productions. But it’s also a series that does disservice to some of its most pivotal characters.

Despite the attempts at honesty and newness, Sacred Games falls for one of the worst gangster-movie tropes there is: the one where the women exist only to be killed off to trigger the hero’s next emotional chapter, or as mothers who shape the men themselves. It’s a trope worn out thin, right from Deewaar to Satya to Agneepath.

It’s especially a shame in Sacred Games because the potential to portray rich, shaded inner lives of the women characters is right there. Right from Jojo, whose death underlines the beginning of the show, to Kanta Bai, the no-nonsense mistress of a liquor den, to Subhadra, rather astonishingly portrayed by Rajshri Deshpande, and Radhika Apte’s Anjali Mathur. All the women act as excellent motivators for the men around them. Their personal motivations, however, are a mystery.

I never find out why and how Kanta Bai came around to being the badass she is, or how Zoya Mirza became the superstar she’s shown to be. It’s especially disheartening because the series allows so much space for lush, immersive storytelling, but all we get are, well, dead women.

The saddest loss, however, is that of Cuckoo’s story.

A peripheral character in the novel, Cuckoo came to life on screen as the enigmatic rani of Mumbai, comfortable in her sensuality and her power to wield it as a weapon. She knows she’s beautiful, wanted, and that her jaadu – her magic – can make empires rise and fall. She is also a transwoman with a story and a voice that we deserved to see more of. It’s after years that a mainstream (Hindi) Indian project hasn’t reduced trans people to villains, punchlines, or predators. Cuckoo is allowed to be a whole person, with her own hurts and joys, at least until she becomes a gang shootout’s collateral damage.

Having said that, was it completely necessary to have a cis-gendered woman play Cuckoo? Kubbra Sait’s treatment of Cuckoo was undoubtedly respectful and generous. But this was such an important, glorious and rare opportunity for the makers to encourage better representation.

Actresses like Anjali Ameer, who starred with Malyalam superstar Mammootty in Peranbu, prove that there is so much trans talent waiting to be found and nurtured. A platform like Netflix allows creators the capacity to be audacious in thinking of the frontiers they can breach. There is no excuse why fostering and championing diversity shouldn’t be one of them.

Netflix has internationally been at the forefront of the struggle towards inclusivity on screen. Shows like Sense8, Voltron: Legendary Defender, Transparent, among others, have been pivotal in increasing trans visibility in entertainment. But as the recent flak Scarlett Johansson received for accepting a role as Dante ‘Tex’ Gill shows, the real problem lies in the lack of effort put into increasing diversity. The difference, which seems merely pedantic, is the difference between transgender people telling a story on their own terms, and their story being misappropriated to serve as a plotline and help the final product cross the ‘politically correct’ hurdles that it may face. Sacred Games manages to increase the visibility, but fails to create diversity.

Sacred Games is an important cultural moment for Indian entertainment and its possibilities. That must be celebrated. However, a cultural moment, and how it impacts us, is nothing but an interrogation of how we interact with it.

It is tempting to cut ourselves some slack and say ‘we’ll get there with the representation bit!’ What’s harder, and possibly more fulfilling, is to ask how we can do this without leaving anyone and their stories behind. We deserve to have good content on our screens, and content can only be good when it nourishes the paradigms it emerges from. It does not detract from the confrontations the series created with caste, class, and religion when one says that there is room for improvement. For now, all I hope is that the next season allows women protagonists the right to live and thrive and tell their stories, which are simply bursting to be told.

Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.

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