Photo Credit: Zishaan A. Latif/Netflix
Sacred Games 2 has been out for a while, which means viewers have had enough time to watch the show, digest its events, and discuss it with fellow fans. And considering the big talking points of India's biggest TV show arguably, we imagine you had a lot of questions after you were done watching, as did we. Who better to answer those questions than the guy who wrote it all, right? Gadgets 360 spoke with Sacred Games head writer Varun Grover to dive deep into the second season of Netflix's first Indian original series, whose future is uncertain as yet. In fact, that was the only question Grover refused to answer. Asked what fans can expect from the third season, he simply said: “I have no comment.”
Warning: major spoilers ahead for Sacred Games season 2.
Grover was a lot more open with every other question in a wide-ranging conversation, be it the Rajneesh movement and Wild Wild Country's rumoured influence on Sacred Games 2, the genesis of Guruji's (Pankaj Tripathi) apocalyptic plot, its connections to Hindu nationalism, and the significance of Croatia to the cult, or the many character deaths across the show's run, including why he didn't want to kill off Radhika Apte's RAW agent Anjali Mathur in the first season. With the last of them, Grover touched upon the differences between the Netflix series and Vikram Chandra's book that served as its basis.
He also offered insights on Sacred Games' making, talking about the varying directorial styles of Anurag Kashyap and Neeraj Ghaywan — the latter came onboard in season 2 to take over from showrunner Vikramaditya Motwane — and getting the former to parody the early years of his career. Grover also revealed why certain episodes in Sacred Games 2 were so dense, and the story ideas that were still left on the table, including the subplot related to the Partition of British India — featuring Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) and Shahid Khan's (Ranvir Shorey) respective mothers — in the finale, which was the remnant of something much bigger originally planned, just as we felt.
The following is a transcript of Gadgets 360's conversation with Grover. Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity, and the questions have been reordered for narrative structure.
Q. Early in season two, you basically recreated the best season one moments via Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) making a movie about himself. It felt funny because in one just season, you've essentially revisited your own show with the excuse of revisiting a character's past. How did that come about, how deliberate was the self-referencing, and how much fun did you just have putting that in?
Grover: It's actually part of the book. In the book also, once Gaitonde leaves Bombay, he starts making a film called “International Khiladi”. Now the only difference is, in the book, he's not making a film about himself. He's making one generic gangster film, which is like very typical 90s masala. We thought, “Okay, because we have to seed in the daddy issues and somehow show that”, we started pushing for that idea. Though it was parody in a way, but it was also fun because Anurag was directing that. A person who has written Satya, and whose entry into Bombay was announced with that real gangster film. Now he's making a spoof of those times using Ram Gopal Varma. So, it was double level of referencing, double meta, actually. Anurag directing a gangster spoof of a gangster show he did last year.
We actually wanted to make a full episode. We shot so much; we wrote so much about that bit. It was just fun for us to show how writers are treated. But all that was chopped off because, of course, the show didn't have that much space. We had roughly 40 minutes of footage by the end of it. And we kept pushing, ‘Let's put one zero[th] episode, just 30 minutes of this fun elements and parody and all.' Of course, nobody agreed to that.
Q. Have you heard from Ram Gopal Varma since release?
Grover: Not yet. I'm sure he will write to Anurag or he'll probably write a tweet once he discovers the thing, but I have not heard anything.
Q. There was a tiny tribute to Sridevi in there as well, which is far from the only real-world referencing in Sacred Games 2. You're also drawing on the Rajneesh movement, Ma Anand Sheela for some parts of the Guruji cult. Was that related to just cults in general or was that influenced by Rajneesh being in the news again last year?
Grover: No. Actually — and we have documents to prove this, but I'm sure nobody's asking for proof — we wrote the character like a month before Wild Wild Country came out. Once it came out, we had a big debate about whether to continue with it or risk the thing that, “Oh, we kind of imitated this character or something.” And we said, “Okay, we know we thought of this character.” And again, it's not complete invention. It is how cults work around the world. And so many cults have — from whatever we researched — like a guru, and then a female devotee being the number two. And it was just our research. And then it started looking like Anand Sheela, but it was not.
Q. Since you've deviated from the book, were there character deaths that you went back and forth on: to kill them or not kill them?
Grover: In season one, Anjali's death was highly debated. I still don't believe we should have killed her. And there was lots of back and forth.
Who ended up pushing for it?
Grover: Everybody else. The whole creative team from writers to showrunner to the creative team from Netflix. They all liked the idea. And I still [think we shouldn't have]. Because one, anyway, in the book, she's not killed. Plus, I felt like we have Radhika Apte and it's a great kind of team, Sartaj and Anjali. It will be fun to see them do the actual job in season two. And somehow that didn't happen.
In season two, yes, we debated [Sartaj's boss] Parulkar['s death]. In the book too, he commits suicide. We were not sure what to do with this character in the end, and we felt, “Okay, there's a cue in the book, let's use that. And then push him towards that.” In the book there is a very different reason. But we thought, okay, it works.
Q. Guruji has this big monologue in the middle of season two, which is basically the confirmation of the plan that has been hinted at since season one. Through that whole atom bomb thing, you touch upon a lot of things, including the cross-border India-Pakistan conflict, the Hindu rashtra philosophy, and the whole Hindu mythology aspect of it. What was the core of that idea and what were the discussions between the writers as you built that up?
Grover: A lot of it is actually what we all have been hearing about, talking about for the last few years. Everywhere in the world, there is rise of right-wing governments or dictatorships. There is rise of divisive politics, anger, hatred, riots, anti-migrant policies, right across Europe, America, everywhere. It's the whole atmosphere — climate crisis — which is very depressing. Generally, for anybody who's slightly pessimistic like me. I get scared of these things very easily. We wanted to keep that fear. Whenever you see a news, for example, right from that Syrian kid dead body on the sea beach to the many brutal cases of rape and mutilation in India, or all across the world. Every time you come across a news like that, you don't even sometimes mean it, but you still end up saying, “It's better if the world just ended.”
That idea, we had right from season one. When we met Pankaj Tripathi for pitching him the show — season one he had only two scenes, but he had to commit for season two also — and he asked, “What is the idea of this character?” That time, when we were discussing the character, I just told him my own despondent worldview, and told him that this is something which we want to build the character of Guruji on. That he will tap into these horrible things, and he will start believing that this world should end — the current copy of the world — and he'll make a new copy. And he instantly, he completely agreed. Not on the character, on the idea. He said, “You're right, this is a terrible world, why not end it?”
And so many people agreed to that, just on an idea level. When we — three of my co-writers in season two — started developing, we knew this is one of the ideas we can play with, as the core of Guruji's cult. And then we started brainstorming, and almost all of us were on the same page in terms of how we have to build the case for ending the world through Guruji. And that was it. It's a very personal feeling, which we have tried to channel through Guruji. And it has to make sense because superheroes are supervillains. Ultimately, no matter how outrageous their plan is, there has to be a core of reality, in their pain or trauma or anger or whatever. That core of reality we had to find and found it in the world around us.
Q. Multiple season 2 episodes felt like they were packing a lot in. What was behind that? Was it a time constraint in that you had to tell the story in eight episodes?
Grover: Almost all of it is organic. And then there are ideas in hindsight. Like one idea, which after watching the show, one very close friend, she had the idea, “Why didn't you do 10 episodes? The material, just spread it out.” We could have had 40-minute episodes instead of 50. And we could have had 10 episodes. And that was one idea which in hindsight, it sounds great, because it is. Some episodes are very dense. We had our beginning points, end points, and then we saw what we could do between those two points. Because we had the clean division of days [on the Sartaj track], with day 10, day nine, day eight. If we removed something, then there wouldn't be a place for it elsewhere because it falls in that course of that day. The only option we had then was to either make some of the episodes dense or drop the thing and forget about it. There's no way we can bring it back. In some episodes, we pushed it. Some episodes, we dropped some stuff. We dropped a lot of stuff because of the density. And some arcs were not really completed in what we wanted to do with those arcs.
Q. What sort of ideas were you not able to include in the show that you wanted to?
Grover: One major idea we couldn't include in season two was the Partition bit. It's only one scene in episode eight. We wanted to do a full episode of that story. And it's a full story, like a short story, inside the book also. The book has four insets, and they are pull-out novellas inside the story. One of them is [Sartaj's mom] Prabhjot's (Richa Kapoor) story. Prabhjot and [Shahid's mom] Navjeet (Tripta Lakhanpal), which is the Partition story. We started writing, we wrote a full treatment of the entire story. And we wanted to do an episode in the middle of the season, like after four episodes, this full episode comes which is the full partition story, which somehow later people will realise, “Okay, this is Sartaj's mom, and that is Shahid's mom.”
And we wrote it but [it didn't work out because of] logistical issues, dates, budget, actors' availability, and locations. [We were] trying to find the Partition-time, Punjab village closer to Bombay. We found so many locations, but nothing fit for us. We found so many locations, but nothing fit for us. And it kept getting delayed and then we came down to, “Okay, let's do a four-scene thing.” So then, that whole thing came down to four scenes. We thought, “Okay, we'll put one scene each in episode five, six, seven, eight at the top.”
Came down to two scenes, came down to one scene finally. And that one scene also, we shot right after the entire show had been shot, and there was some patchwork of two days. And then I requested Vikram, “Let's do that one scene because otherwise, it will just be lost forever. And there's no other chance we're going to get to do that one story.” So, I quickly wrote that one scene and then we shot it in one night somewhere in Mira Road [in Mumbai].
Q. Were there scenes written in season two for which you imagined a certain place but by the time you ended up shooting them, they were in a completely different space?
Grover: That happens a lot. For example, the Guruji portion, we wrote [for] Croatia. We wanted the ashram to be in Croatia, because there is one theory — again, we couldn't put that theory in the show — that the original Sarasvati River — which we are trying to find here, and there have been so many researches by this government to find Sarasvati River — is in Croatia. There are all these theories about Croatia, a kind of connection to ancient Indian civilization, and ancient Aryan civilization and all that. So those theories, we wanted to kind of hint at. So that's why we wrote this thing in Croatia. We couldn't get Croatia because of whatever logistical issues, we ended up shooting in Freedom Park, in Johannesburg, South Africa. That was visually very different from how we had imagined it while writing. But again, we found a great location and it had great architecture, aesthetics, kind of blended in with what we wanted to do.
Q. Now that you're done with the book, looking back, what was the biggest headache of the adaptation process?
Grover: Couple of things. One, the book is very atmospheric. Sartaj is not really — he knows there is a bomb in Bombay, but he's not really trying to save the city. He's solving some adultery case on the side. We had to change the tone of the book into this space. And that's why season two is probably closer to book's tone in terms of like it's a slow burn and not like an out-and-out thriller which season one was closer to. But changing the tone, and second, I would say is contemporising the book, because the book came out in 2006. Mr. Chandra started writing it in 1996. So that research, that era, that Bombay has kind of changed a lot. The Bombay Police has changed a lot after 26/11. Like after 9/11, America changed, after 26/11, Bombay, Bombay police, and the procedures changed. We had to bring in those elements also, so that was probably the second challenge.
Q. How much of improv is there on-screen and who does the most of it?
Grover: Anurag actually improvises a lot with the actors and gives them the space to improvise. So like [Amruta Subhash, who plays K.D. Yadav] improvised a lot. Of course, there were lines there. But Anurag gave her the space to play that. So that back and forth with Gaitonde about “Aaj se main nabbe aur tu das [From today, I'm ninety and you're ten]” and all that, though it was written, but she pushes it. And the way she takes the pause and she kept adding a lot of beats.
That whole conversation where she's angry with Mathur and you know, she's telling Mathur to shut up, Mathur is telling her to forget about Gaitonde, and then she fights. Some of the dialogues there were kind of improvised. More dialogues in Gaitonde world were kind of improvised than Sartaj world, because Neeraj works with very tight scripts. He's more into rehearsal and speaking to the line and then finding whatever magic you can find through that. While Anurag is quite free flowing, and he likes to rewrite on the set. He likes to keep adding stuff, letting the actors add stuff.