Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde in Sacred Games

Netflix

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Ganesh Gaitonde in Sacred Games

My brief love affair with Bollywood—India’s mainstream Hindi-language cinema—began when I was ten, in 1994, with the release of a film called Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (What Am I to You?). A crowd-pleasing three-and-a-half-hour love story set during an endless and elaborate Hindu wedding, it became the highest-grossing Bollywood movie up to that time, earning $138 million. Its fourteen upbeat songs stormed the Indian music charts and its throwback wedding rituals popped up in actual weddings. Before HAHK, my cousins and I hadn’t known that the girl’s side in a wedding could ransom the shoes of the groom for a hefty sum; now we turned into ardent shoe-snatchers.

Bollywood movies in the 1970s and 1980s tended to favor the social underdog and revel in a kind of glorious kitsch and pulpiness. After HAHK, though, mainstream movies devolved into advertisements for bourgeois life, featuring rich Hindus cavorting across continents and flaunting the latest brands. India was in the throes of economic liberalization after decades of socialism. Middle-class Hindu audiences thrilled at the opportunity to see their material aspirations projected on the screen.

I relished the vitality and pure silliness of these movies as a boy, but as I got older their evasions began to grate on me. Major social realities—poverty, casteism, sexual violence, religious intolerance—were simply unremarked upon in the downpour of songs. What was holding back Bollywood, which churns out over three hundred films a year, from venturing, even occasionally, into more complex sociopolitical storylines?

Some of it was risk-aversion and condescension: directors, who hailed from the upper castes and economic elites, delivered fantasias they thought would appeal to imaginary bumpkins in the provinces and fill thousand-seat cinemas. But the Indian government too had a hand in stunting the industry’s growth. Unlike in the US, writers and directors in India must contend with a finicky and paternalistic government-appointed national censor board, which arbitrarily forces directors to snip content that might be against “the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.” Basically, anything that offends anyone. Individuals and groups in India that sniff offense are ready to cry foul, sue filmmakers, and go on a rampage against productions and cinemas.

In 2016, for example, the acclaimed director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was on the set of his extravagant historical fantasy Padmaavat when members of a right-wing Hindu group surrounded him and—reaching over a protective knot of assistants—slapped the cowering director’s head and tore at his hair. Other vigilantes smashed the set with hockey sticks, yelling what, in India, are piquantly termed “mother sister abuses” (it was all caught in a shaky cellphone video). Bhansali’s crime? Allegedly including a dream sequence in the movie in which a Muslim invader romances a Hindu queen—a huge no-no in Hindu nationalist India, where Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of the population, are the target of religious discrimination and violence.

But no such sequence actually existed in the film; the rumor seems to have sprung from the fanciful notion that because the two stars of the film, Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, were romantically involved in real life, they would naturally enact their love on-screen. Nevertheless, Bhansali was forced to move the shoot to another state—where his set was then burned down. Because the idea of the film had incited violence, the censor board recommended modifications to the script—including a new title. Bhansali accepted these modifications and released his film in cinemas guarded by policemen. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government supported the vigilantes throughout; BJP prime minister Narendra Modi remained encouragingly silent about the violence.

For all the controversy it generated, Padmaavat wasn’t a film that attempted a serious historical record—it was fantasy. Those aiming to capture social realities or explore political themes have always found themselves on sticky terrain—long before Modi’s reign. Anurag Kashyap, one of India’s leading “new wave” Bollywood auteurs (a close parallel in the US would be Martin Scorsese), had his first movie, Paanch (2003), banned because, according to the censor board, it “glorifies crime, uses double-meaning language, depicts the coldblooded killing of policemen and people and contains no healthy positive message.”

His second film, the bleak, song-free terrorism masterpiece Black Friday (2004), was held up for two years by the censors because the incidents depicted in the film—the 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai—were still being litigated in court (a meaningless yardstick in India, where court cases can drag on for decades). Kashyap finally achieved commercial success in 2009 with the film Dev D, which not only updated a weepy 1955 Bollywood classic but offered sops to the industry with songs, an operatic plotline, and supersaturated colors. It was impressively frank about sex and drugs, but by then a liberalizing culture had caught up with the director. More importantly, unlike Black Friday, the film featured little political content: no Hindu–Muslim tensions, no mentions of caste or government corruption.

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Kashyap and his contemporaries—directors such as Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Vikramaditya Motwane, Alankrita Shrivastava, Sriram Raghavan, and Neeraj Ghaywan—began, by the late 2000s, to constitute a loose generation of filmmakers who had been raised on Bollywood but were impatient with its cheesier aspects. Films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Haider, Gangs of Wasseypur, Udta Punjab, and Lipstick Under My Burkha ditched treacly meet-cutes in favor of edgy social and political critiques. The younger urban audience, habituated to nonmusical plots by Hollywood hits like Titanic and Avatar and prestige shows like Breaking Bad, was more than ready for the change. Meanwhile, in the 2010s, star-studded melodramas with actors like Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were no longer guaranteed hits.

But this new generation of filmmakers still struggled to speak without the heavy boot of censorship on them. Alankrita Shrivastava’s award-winning comic tale of female sexuality, Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), was initially banned for containing such things as “audio pornography” and for being “lady oriented”—i.e., including a scene in which a woman asserts herself sexually. It was eventually released with sixteen cuts. Dibakar Banerjee was forced to eliminate a reference to a character’s Dalit caste background from his 2010 film Love Sex Aur Dhokha (Love, Sex, and Betrayal) because the character was lynched and beheaded, making it, in the eyes of the censor board, potentially offensive to Dalits. Never mind that the intention was to dramatize chronic anti-Dalit violence. “The bogey of destruction of public property and loss of life is always thrown at us,” Banerjee complained in an interview with an Indian newspaper. “[If] the Censor Board asks me that if lobby groups protest and some buses are burned, will you take the responsibility, what do I do?” Kashyap, in another interview, was candid about the subjects that were off limits in theatrical releases: “Sexuality, religion and politics.” What exactly could one talk about?

We are so thoroughly disillusioned with the Internet these days that it can be surprising to encounter a Web technology that delivers, even momentarily, on its original utopian promise: freeing suppressed voices. But this was precisely the effect that Netflix had when it entered the Indian market in 2016 (Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and others soon followed). Though a multibillion-dollar corporation with its own opaque strictures, Netflix has tended to invest power in the writers of shows. This investment has paid off internationally with hits like Narcos and House of Cards. Still, Netflix likely would have bowed before the Indian government were it not for a convenient gap in India’s decades-old Cinematograph Act, one that producers, writers, and filmmakers were quick to exploit.

The 1952 Cinematograph Act, implemented a few years after India’s independence, was a holdover from British public morality laws. It took a vast apparatus of British-era censorship—applied zealously to films about seditious revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi—and consolidated it into a single, government-appointed censor board tasked with protecting cinema-going Indians from salacious or inflammatory content. Yet the law couldn’t have foreseen an era in which shows would be beamed on-demand into people’s homes, bypassing both cinemas and the separate but even more restrictive TV censorship codes, the latter of which is yet to be updated to include streaming platforms.

Filmmakers like Kashyap were quick to grasp the potential of these platforms, which meant losing a cinema-going audience but gaining directorial freedom. In 2018 Kashyap and Motwane released the first Netflix India show, Sacred Games. A sprawling thriller with a noirish air of perpetual conspiracy, it feels like Pynchon set in India, and deals openly with caste tensions, religious strife, and queer sex.

The show is divided into two discrete perspectives. In the first episode, Sartaj Singh—an overworked, underestimated, sweaty, divorced Sikh detective in Mumbai—is summoned on the phone one night by a mafia don named Ganesh Gaitonde, who has been MIA for sixteen years but now claims to be back in town. When Sartaj traces Gaitonde’s cellphone, he is led to an underground bunker where Gaitonde is hiding. But Gaitonde—played as a simmering streetwise polysexual sociopath by the short, rangy “new wave” actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui—shoots himself in the head before they can speak. Then, in classic Bollywood style, the voice of the dead Gaitonde proceeds to tell his story of rising from being the son of a cuckolded Brahmin to becoming the biggest Hindu gangster in India—with tentacles in garbage, gold, arms, drugs, Bollywood, and politics.

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Sartaj must meanwhile solve the mystery Gaitonde has set up by dying in the bunker: What was the famous don doing there? Why did he choose to alert Sartaj—a nobody in the Mumbai police? And what about Gaitonde’s ominous warning that, while he doesn’t “know how the world started…I know how it will end”?

The bifurcated show unintentionally dramatizes the inner divide of the show’s creators themselves: the rationalist, interrogative “Western” aesthetic of Sartaj on the one hand and the mythic Bollywood self-aggrandizement of Gaitonde on the other. This dichotomy exists in the source material, too—the eponymous 916-page novel by Vikram Chandra published in 2006. Chandra comes from a noted family of Bollywood writers and critics, and his characters self-consciously model themselves on Bollywood tropes (much as Silvio in The Sopranos can effortlessly recite lines from The Godfather). So, like Kashyap’s films, the TV show doesn’t jettison the Bollywood aesthetic so much as give it an injection of social reality.

And how shocking such reality can feel after years of censorship! In season 1, Gaitonde’s love interest, a bar-dancer named Kukoo, is revealed, almost casually, to be a transgender woman. In season 2, Gaitonde makes love to an Osho-like male guru who is at the apex of an international trade in psychedelic drugs. Such scenes—often graphic, and unthinkable in Bollywood or even most Hollywood films—are never played for shock value but present an aspect of the complex world the gangsters inhabit. Elsewhere the filmmakers link Gaitonde’s career to major political upheavals in Indian life, placing the film in “history” in a way that Bollywood movies, afraid of the censor board, often avoid.

The formula of heightened realism worked for audiences: Netflix reported that Sacred Games’s second season, in 2019, was the most-watched show in India. It earned an international Emmy nomination and its success led Netflix to immediately commission sixteen more “Indian Original Series”; platforms like Amazon Prime and Disney’s Indian streaming service Hotstar followed suit. Streaming—which also catered to a demand for racier, unrated material one couldn’t access on regular TV—became a big business, with the platforms collectively notching up over 300 million viewers in India by early 2021, many of whom pay as little as $4 a month to access movies, music, and shows on their cellphones (compare this to the $6 cost of a movie ticket).

A crucial aspect of this boom is the ascendancy of the writer, whom Bollywood directors previously treated as a necessary menial. TV writers now serve as showrunners, and their ideas can matter as much as the presence of stars. Indian novels—once overlooked as source material because of their thorny, realist storylines—are being adapted to the screen. The works of Aravind Adiga, Prayaag Akbar, Vikram Seth, and Manu Joseph have yielded major TV shows or films on streaming platforms.

The difficult subjects addressed in the major prestige shows—rape, caste violence, religious divides, sexuality—also became more urgent as Modi, a Hindu hard-liner, consolidated his cultish hold on Indian political life. From the start of his first term in 2014, he sought to disenfranchise minorities and return India to a conservative Hindu moral code. Using mob intimidation, his party also came down on reporters, intellectuals, and artists, as with the Padmaavat incident. In 2019, embolded by a second electoral victory, he clamped down on the liberties of citizens in the disputed territory of Kashmir and tried to pass a controversial law that would have potentially divested millions of Muslims of citizenship.

Facing the specter of censorship, more and more gifted directors exiled themselves to Netflix and Amazon. A spate of excellent shows—Made in Heaven, Mirzapur, and Delhi Crime among them—resulted. Of these shows, none has captured Modi’s India better, or more subtly, than a series named Paatal Lok, or “Netherworld”—which, it turns out, is also one of the first casualties of a censorship regime Modi announced in February of this year.

Released in May 2020 by Amazon India, Paatal Lok’s first season focuses on a past-his-prime TV anchor who learns that four men who had been ordered to kill him have been arrested. It hews closely to its source material, the journalist Tarun Tejpal’s 2009 novel The Story of My Assassins (Tejpal, who was recently acquitted of charges of rape, is not named in the credits). Paatal Lok depicts three distinct circles: that of elite Delhi journalists; of struggling inner-city detectives; and of the assassins, who are mostly drawn from impoverished lower-caste backgrounds in the provinces.

What is most satisfying about the show is how well it knows all three worlds, and how it dramatizes the parasitic relationships between them. At one point an English-speaking TV journalist thanks a Hindi heartland reporter for a tip. The reporter responds, “You English news agencies carry news of India, not Hindustan”—where “Hindustan” is a metonym for Indian life outside the Westernized enclaves of the big cities. The English-language journalist, in turn, reflexively offers up a mixture of flattery and condescension: “Well said, Amitoshji. You Hindi journalists have a finger on the real pulse of the nation.”

The English-language journalist has the power; the Hindi journalist has the news. They need each other, and each knows it. The phrase “pulse of the nation” here is used just as pundits in India employ it—a reference to an imagined space of poverty and violence that is exotic and exciting to learn about, but that you’d never want to live in.

The realism of Paatal Lok is most apparent in its secondary characters—irritable prostitutes, unctuous policemen, braggart thugs—who burst upon us at unexpected moments with colorful local language. This is another stylistic choice that Kashyap and his cohort have been championing for years, the need to bring India’s polyglot life to the screen without flattening everything into Hindi, the national language. (India has twenty-two official languages and hundreds more unofficial ones, and most people speak more than one. Hindi-language cinema is the most prominent of several regional film industries.)

Paatal Lok’s most impressive creation is the detective Haathi Ram. While Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games can feel a bit like an American detective who has tied a turban around his head, Haathi is finely etched and located in a distinct world. He does have some of the hackneyed professional liabilities that filmmakers love to shower on cops: passed over for promotion, he is desperate to prove himself and get out of the netherworld—the titular Paatal Lok—of Eastern Delhi where he has been posted. But otherwise his family is solidly average. His wife falls for her brother’s cockamamie pyramid schemes and his son, studying in an upper-crust school, is ashamed of his parents’ lack of English (though he can hardly speak it himself).

Played by Jaideep Ahlawat—known for his charismatic supporting roles—Haathi is lumbering and awkward, the type of man who scissors his arms and legs too much when he runs, his mouth always open at the end of sentences in a slightly hickish way. It helps that Ahlawat belongs to the very caste of Haryanvi Jats he is playing—again we owe it to directors like Kashyap for having cultivated actors who actually hail from the parts of India their films attempt to represent. His prominent acne scars are eloquent markers in and of themselves—the skin of an everyman exposed to the elements. Haathi is a Hindu but isn’t as openly religious as his fellow constables, who have installed a shrine in the police station that they chant in front of, pointedly excluding a young Muslim detective who becomes the Robin to Haathi’s Batman.

Unlike Haathi, that young Muslim detective, Imran Ansari is not a complex creation. We don’t know his family life or whether being a Kashmiri Muslim is different from being a Delhi Muslim (it is). He is the “good” minority character. But in the conservative annals of Indian cinema—where Hindus and Muslims are either unlikely bosom buddies or violent enemies—the show is remarkable for dramatizing the microaggressions Ansari suffers in an era of ascendant Hindu nationalism.

Sobhita Dhulipala as Tara Khanna and Arjun Mathur as Karan Mehra in Made in Heaven

Amazon Studios

Sobhita Dhulipala as Tara Khanna and Arjun Mathur as Karan Mehra in Made in Heaven

The insults come from all corners. A senior intelligence official commends Ansari for passing one stage of the civil services exam, before turning to a peer and adding, as if Ansari weren’t there, “These days quite a few people from their community are joining. It’ll help better their image.” While sitting for a mock interview for his exam, Ansari is asked by a test coach: “What do you feel about the current status of minorities in this country?” When Ansari answers truthfully—“Sir, if the question is are minorities feeling threatened in this country, then I’d like to say I think so”—the interviewer stops him and tells him it’s important to “come across as positive, progressive, particularly for you.” In a moment of rage, even Haathi uses an anti-Muslim slur while torturing a Muslim suspect—only to apologize to Ansari later (like Ansari, Haathi is an outsider, which partly explains his liberal tendencies). There is no forced payoff or heartwarming catharsis for this plotline. Ansari must go on living in an unfriendly nation.

Elsewhere in the show, caste issues are explored. One of the assassins, who looks like a Punjabi hipster with his stubble, heavy-metal-style shirts, and a tattoo of a knife, comes from a persecuted Sikh lower caste. Bullied by upper-caste boys, he joins a lower-caste self-empowerment group (much like the Black Panthers). After he kills one of his bullies, he escapes into a life of crime. In revenge, upper-caste men gang-rape his mother. These plot turns are handled with sickly precision, but the show is often facile in plumbing the psychological reasons lower-class men turn to criminality, suggesting it is all about bullying. Unsurprisingly, these sections substitute song-driven montages for emotional development—the old Bollywood fallback.

When Paatal Lok was released, the head of the Congress Party in the northeastern state of Sikkim took offense at the use of a slur against Nepalis (he seemed to not understand that the slur was supposed to show how people from North East India and Nepal are discriminated against). The head of a Sikh organization called for the show to be banned for depicting a Sikh man as a rapist. Internet trolls set upon the show, terming it “anti-Hindu.” It didn’t matter. Paatal Lok was out and there was no way for the government to stop it.

But things were already beginning to change. As early as January 2019, hoping to head off government interference, Amazon, Netflix, and thirteen other streaming services adopted a code of self-regulation, which includes a promise to censor

content which deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or national flag, anything visual or a story line that promotes child pornography, any content that “maliciously” intends to outrage religious sentiments, content that “deliberately and maliciously” promotes or encourages terrorism and lastly any content that has been banned for exhibition or distribution by law or a Court.

Though they mostly left their prestige shows untouched, the platforms zealously applied their made-up rules to foreign content. Last year the Indian streaming platform Hotstar blocked an episode of Last Week Tonight in which John Oliver criticized Modi. Amazon, acting with “Indian cultural sensitivities in mind,” cut a segment of the show Top Gear that featured a car partially made of cowhides. These companies may not own movie theaters they need to protect from mobs, the film scholar Tupur Chatterjee told me, but a retailer like Amazon doesn’t want its delivery-people beaten up and its overall access to the Indian market restricted.

Modi and his allies, too, began to apply pressure on Bollywood. The prime minister has always understood the need to cultivate Bollywood as a propaganda arm, making actors pose for group selfies and setting his army of trolls upon those who dare to speak openly about the rise of religious violence in the country. Bollywood tends to be a conservative industry—not reliably (or even performatively) liberal like Hollywood—and actors have been all too ready to toady to the great leader. But in December 2019, when Modi attempted to pass a law that could potentially strip Muslims of citizenship, a few younger Bollywood stars like Farhan Akhtar and Dia Mirza revolted. The megastar Deepika Padukone, the heroine of Padmaavat, showed up on the campus of India’s ultraliberal Jawaharlal Nehru University to cheer students protesting Modi’s laws. The BJP was incensed by Bollywood’s perfidy.

It soon had its revenge. During the Covid lockdown last June, the thirty-four-year-old actor Sushant Singh Rajput committed suicide, hanging himself from a ceiling fan in his bedroom. Rajput suffered from depression, and the police ruled out foul play, but news channels amplified a pro-Modi starlet’s baseless accusation that Rajput was driven to suicide by a heartless Bollywood mafia that snuffs out talent and hooks young actors on drugs. Modi’s supporters in the media were only too happy to run with this salacious story, striking back at Bollywood and creating a distraction from the government’s handling of Covid.

That turned out to be just the beginning. In November 2020, a BJP functionary filed a police complaint against Meera Nair’s genteel Netflix show A Suitable Boy (based on the Vikram Seth novel), for a scene in which a Hindu-Muslim couple kiss against the backdrop of a Hindu temple. Though the complaint was dismissed, two Netflix executives could have faced jail time.

Then, in January 2021, representatives of the BJP government filed even more serious charges against an Amazon India show called Tandav, for showing “Hindu gods and goddesses…in an uncharitable way and using objectionable language, which can incite religious tension”—it features a satirical play-within-a-play in which characters dress as Hindu gods and discuss their Twitter followings. The head of original content at Amazon India was interrogated by the police, and the director, beset by trolls and threatened with violence, cut several objectionable scenes. On the defensive again, major streaming companies began to sanitize existing scripts or turn down projects with even a hint of controversial material. A young director told me, “We’ve all been told to stay away from Hindu-Muslim content,” adding, “Everyone has a pre- and post-Tandav story.”

Now what had been informally understood is becoming law: in February the Modi government finally announced a regime of censorship and ratings for streaming shows. Though the government claims this will be “soft” censorship with much “self-regulation,” few are convinced, especially since it will likely use the restrictive code for TV content as a model. Amazon, for example, has already announced that it is canceling season 2 of one of its best shows: Paatal Lok. Almost simultaneously, in April, the government abruptly abolished the tribunal that allowed filmmakers to appeal censor-board recommendations; now filmmakers will be forced to go straight to the courts, placing them under severe financial pressure.

So it might be that the brief aperture of freedom offered by the streaming platforms is closing up. Directors who were boldly mixing the palettes of Bollywood and international prestige TV will once again be forced to turn into tricksters and “hustlers” before a censor board, as Dibakar Banerjee once put it. The “golden age” of Indian TV might be over just when it had started. Still, these shows—Paatal Lok, Sacred Games, Made in Heaven—will remain examples of what Indian writers and directors are capable of when they aren’t contending with the single largest threat to their voices: the Indian state.