Anurag Kashyap was in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, strolling around fairly nonchalantly, though keeping a wary eye on the smallish crowd milling around him and his companion, a famous actress. He in a blue-and-white striped polo shirt and khakis, her in an off-white summer dress. This was May 2015, and they were both catching a moment after her performance in a play at Kamani, a few hours earlier that evening. As they walked around, courageous members of the crowd would approach them for a quick selfie, a request the pair were happily indulging.
My friend Ajit and I, excited at seeing Kashyap so accessible, managed to go up to him for a picture. His actress-companion was busy posing with a muscular looking lad, a few steps away. Anurag, somewhat wrong-footed, asked us to wait till she was done taking her other picture, assuming instinctively that our business was primarily with her. Ajit and I were equally taken aback that a man with such directorial prowess and cult celebrity would so easily assume such a thing. His reaction was telling of the world he, or most directors, must inhabit in their daily lives – exercising god-like dominion on set, but being eviscerated to the sidelines by a glamour-struck public. One can only imagine that he’d be chomping at the bit to subvert that paradigm, to slap the fetishisation out of the silly masses.
Add to that penchant for subversion, Kashyap’s experience with the Indian censor board. His first film, Paanch, never received certification and consequently didn’t get commercial release and his second, Black Friday, was delayed for several years. With that mix, you have a man with something sharp to say. All his subsequent films have had to tread a fine balance between commercial considerations and media expectations on the one hand and his desire for artistic expression on the other, something Kashyap has regularly voiced frustration over.
Vikramaditya Motwane, a long-time Kashyap acolyte, is a commendable director in his own right, particularly for his 2010 directorial debut, Udaan, a film reportedly loosely based on Kashyap’s early life. Motwane is not a shy man either, with Udaan dealing head on, yet tenderly, with issues of parental abuse and teenage coming-of-age.
On Sacred Games, Netflix’s deep pockets and offer of a creative carte blanche, with its eye on international audiences instead of domestic prudery, have allowed Kashyap and Motwane to let loose their twisted worldview – sometimes in subtle and not immediately obvious ways, despite the otherwise graphic nature of the show. While the overall plot adapts, taking liberties, Vikram Chandra’s 2006 book, as with any Kashyap endeavour, the devil is in the details.
One blink-and-you-missed-it scene in the middle of the show’s sixth episode epitomises this.
Spoiler alert: The remainder of this piece contains certain significant spoilers for the Netflix series Sacred Games.
For a show that opens with a Pomeranian yelping its way down a 30-storey fall, to meet its inevitable grizzly fate, the scene in question is extraordinarily tame: a famous actress, Zoya Mirza played by Elnaaz Norouzi, comes out and performs a 30-second dance number at a fundraiser. The audience claps. Nothing remarkable.
However, the subversion in that scene is the pinnacle of two sub-narratives that have been slowly built up during the course of the previous five episodes. As background, the show shuttles between two time-lines – the present day, centred around Saif Ali Khan’s Sartaj Singh, a somewhat incompetent Mumbai policeman, and the decades spanning the ascent of Mumbai don Ganesh Gaitonde, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
The first sub-narrative relates to Kukoo. Shortly into Gaitonde’s rise we are introduced to Kukoo (Kubra Sait), a bar dancer and gangster’s moll. She’s transgender – a fact the audience is left in no doubt of. Other than a few discussions about Gaitonde needing to get married to gain respect in the community, Kukoo remains for a large part of the series, an equal and intimate partner for Gaitonde. She is unreservedly accorded the archetypical position occupied by the femme fatale in a noir flick – complete with intense love-making. The exaggerated role given to Kukoo, compared to the book, is deliberate and likely to make the average Indian consumer a touch squeamish.
The second sub-narrative relates to Zoya Mirza (the famous actress). In the present day timeline, Zoya is presented as a small-town girl who has made it big in Mumbai’s film industry. She is universally admired for her beauty. In fact, we are repeatedly told Sartaj’s affable aide, Constable Katekar, carries a picture of her in his wallet, hidden behind that of his wife and child.
Cut to the scene immediately before the dance number. Zoya is sending off her boyfriend and co-star, for whom she has no love lost, on a doomed overseas trip. We see her in a slinky black dress. A quintessentially desirable ‘object’ in the framework of the heterosexual male gaze.
Back to the 30-second dance number by Zoya at the fundraiser. Constable Katekar is in the audience, he is eagerly waiting for Zoya to come out and perform. A figure walks out on stage, her face in the shadows, and you do a double take.
Without warning or foreshadowing, without any previous or subsequent plot requirement, Zoya walks out on stage, a splitting image of Kukoo. Your apex female character, the object of lust and desire, rendered in that moment in the exact likeness of the transgender bar dancer. The audience is thrilled at the show, Constable Katekar applauds and leaves.
Now, the series is by no means a feminist-friendly rendering. Women lack agency for the most part, and even Radhika Apte’s R&AW agent, Anjali Mathur, while strong and resourceful, is largely secondary in the plot. It is implied Zoya has risen to stardom only through the good offices of Gaitonde and by trading sexual favours. It is unlikely each episode (or any) in the series passes the low threshold of the Bechdel test – two women must converse about a subject that doesn’t concern a man. Kashyap’s and Sacred Games’ universe is a man’s domain, where agency is articulated primarily through masculinity contests.
Separately, controversy rages in the United States about Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man, in Rub & Tug and the usurpation of transgender roles and opportunities by cisgender actors. Similar conversation in India is far from mainstream, or even entertained, where our apex court is currently deciding whether criminalisation of homosexual acts falls foul of our constitution.
That being said, we can still appreciate what we get. The Zoya into Kukoo transformation teases out, in a few swift seconds, so many diverse questions about ideas of beauty, gender normativity and transphobia. If you were merely presented the two images, absent of any context, they would pass as unremarkably similar. But in so sharply juxtaposing the two narratives, a trans-man comes out as desirable, as a cisgender actress. The Indian audience is quickly asked the question: how real are our attitudes, if a trick of the light can throw their foundation in its entirety. It is in such moments, Kashyap-Motwane and Sacred Games, are their spell-binding subversive best.
Rishabh Gupta is a lawyer based in Singapore, and reachable @slartifartbast on Twitter.