(This article contains spoilers)
The first time we meet Cuckoo in Sacred Games --- Netflix's first original Indian series --- she looks like a quintessential gangster moll. In a shimmering dress, she descends from gangster Suleiman Isa's red Rolls-Royce and enters an exclusive club, where Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is refused entry because he doesn't look rich or powerful enough. As Gaitonde gawks at Isa's posse from the street, he tells us (the audience) that he wants Isa's 'lal pari' --Cuckoo. Cuckoo to him is an alluring dream, full of magic #Cuckookajadoo.
As the show advances, we see Gaitonde attain this alluring dream. Cuckoo leaves Isa to be with him, inciting a rivalry between Gaitoinde and Isa's gangs, that costs many lives over the following decade. Cuckoo's charms are undeniable, but what makes her really interesting as a character is that unlike most gun molls that we have seen on Indian screens, Cuckoo is intelligent and confident. She may make a pretty arm candy, but she is no one's fool. "Cuckoo kisi ki property nahi hai," she tells Gaitonde the first time they talk. To Gaitonde, she is an inspiration, the love of his life and a good luck charm.
Cuckoo, as we learn later, also happens to be transgender. The actress who played Cuckoo's role in Sacred Games, Kubbra Sait said that she was given only one brief by the makers when she took up the role. Sait said, "It was just one line, 'Be honest to the character' is what Anurag (Kashyap) said."
Sait added that both Vikram (Vikramaditya Motwane) and Anurag instructed her to constantly put herself in the character's shoes. "Don't do anything that would embarrass the character, because the character wouldn't embarrass herself." Sait was told by the makers of Sacred Games.
So far, Indian audiences have seen extremely insensitive portrayals of transgender characters onscreen. Therefore, Sacred Games and Cuckoo brings welcome change for all of us. While Bollywood is no champion for gender roles, and endorsing gender stereotypes, and objectifying women is what most commercial filmmakers still do best, the way transgender characters have been treated in commercial Indian cinema is abominable.
In most films, transgender characters are either reduced to comic relief elements or are pure evil. If you look through Bollywood's filmography, especially through 90's and the early 2000's, there are several films, where actresses like Bobby Darling have played the flippant sidekick who was just there to be ridiculed.
Much like Hollywood, Bollywood too initially depicted trans characters as villainous. In Mahesh Bhatt's film, Sadak, we have seen Maharani, an evil madam of a brothel. Bhatt also made another film, Tamanna, which was one of those rare movies in Bollywood to have a fully etched out eunuch role played brilliantly by Paresh Rawal.
Bollywood's marginalization of transgenders is so harsh, that they hardly feature in mainstream cinema. Films in which there are transgender characters, they are often just a cardboard cut out, placed in the story to do an act (mostly a funny one).
However, there have been few films in the past, where a transgender character had played the protagonist. Ashutosh Rana, for example, played the role of Shabnam Mausi -- a eunuch who became an MLA. While it is always heartening to see these films being made, in most cases, these films distil the protagonist's gender identity as the most important factor, as a consequence of which, we never get to know the person beyond his/her gender identity.
Sacred Games, however, is refreshingly different, honest and sensitive in portraying Cuckoo, as transgender. To begin with, Cuckoo's gender identity is an important part of who she is, but as we get to know her, we become aware that she is, like everyone else, a lot many things beyond her gender identity.
Sait said that she played Cuckoo's character with a 'human touch' and 'right emotions'. "Keeping the heart at the right place was very important. I tried to feel what the character was feeling. I always look at characters as human beings and then empathize with them... I treated Cuckoo in the same way. Cuckoo wasn't an outer body experience. It was a very internalised experience." she added.
The actress revealed that when she was finalised for the role, she immediately rushed to a bookstore to buy a copy of Vikram Chandra's book, Sacred Games, to learn more about Cuckoo. However, to her dismay, she did not find any mention of Cuckoo in the index.
"I called Anurag and asked, 'The book doesn't mention Cuckoo, what role have you given me?' He said, 'book mat padh, usme hai hi nahi'. Cuckoo is a touch and go in the book. Cuckoo is a transgender and a cabaret dancer, but she doesn't have any love story in the book. I have to salute the makers, the writers and Vikram, who actually made this character what it is," added the actress.
The writers of Sacred Games, Smita Singh, Vasant Nath, and Varun Grover have indeed done a terrific job in adapting Chandra's sprawling novel for Netflix. But, their biggest contribution to Sacred Games is surely the love story of Gaitonde and Cuckoo. Cuckoo becomes more real to us because she is loved, and respected by Gaitonde, because he doesn't change the way he looks at her, after he learns that Cuckoo's assigned sex is different from her gender identity. He still looks at her with adulation and believes that she is nothing short of pure magic.
Sait said while approaching Cuckoo's character, no one was like, " Wow! transgender character, so aisa karenge... We did not do it for attention... I played it with honesty and respect."
Sacred Games features Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who has done an amazing job with Ganesh Gaitonde) one of the biggest names of Indian art house cinema, as well as Saif Ali Khan (who played the honest but troubled cop, Sartaj Singh), one of the most popular actors of Bollywood, yet Sait's Cuckoo not only takes considerable limelight away from the two biggies but also engages us more than Gaitonde and Sartaj do. The reason why Cuckoo's character is so engaging is because she represents universal emotions -- her vulnerability and feelings for Gaitonde are sentiments that are easily relatable. Cuckoo is the true heroine of Sacred Games.
Sacred Games too, like Cuckoo, works not only for the home audience but also for international viewers for precisely this reason -- the emotional connect, which happens to be universal. Perhaps that is the reason why despite being a very Indian production, with innumerable cultural references, talks of historical and political events, and even mythology that may be lost on the international audience, Sacred Games have been generating a steady buzz overseas too.