Special Ops review: Neeraj Pandey's meandering spy thriller lacks the thrill and emotional heft of his earlier work
Special Ops is a fictional eight-episode limited series about a two-decade-long manhunt to nab the mastermind behind the 2001 Parliament bombing.
Neeraj Pandey's debut feature A Wednesday (2008) saw a "common man" bring the police headquarters of an entire city down to its knees with passable knowledge on technology and security. There was an immense gratification in witnessing an assured, albeit far-fetched diatribe on terrorism.
Unfortunately, Pandey fails to replicate the charm of his debut directorial in his latest project, Special Ops, a fictional eight-episode limited series about a two-decade-long manhunt to nab the mastermind behind the 2001 Parliament bombings. Here, Pandey has teamed up with Naam Shabana director Shivam Nair to co-direct this large-scale continent-spanning project.
We meet Himmat Singh (Kay Kay Menon), a senior analyst at Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), who is summoned by the internal auditing community to explain expenditures amounting to a whopping Rs 28 crore he sanctioned under "miscellaneous." As the story begins to unfurl, we see the Singh casually blow the lid off on bureaucratic red-tapism and the corrupt power structure even as he continues his secret mission.
Scripted by Pandey, along with Deepak Kingrani and Benazir Ali Fida, Special Ops may have seemed to be a highly ambitious enterprise on paper but the end product somehow got lost in translation.
Himmat Singh, much like Pandey's other heroes, is a common man. He is hardworking and affectionate, but does not miss out on his daily dose of harmless abuse-hurling. His daughter (Revathi Pillai), now on the cusp of adulthood, gives him frequent nightmares, and his wife (Gautami Kapoor), despite being fully aware of her husband's obsessive need to control their daughter, is too mellow for comfort.
Despite the lengthy expository scenes on Himmat in almost every episode, it is hard to empathise with him. Let me rephrase. The primary character, like most on Special Ops, does not evoke any emotion but indifference. His back-and-forth with the auditing committee, comprising of Mr Chadha (Parmeet Sethi) and DK Banerjee (Kali Prasad Mukherjee), lacks the charm as well as the emotional heft of the crackling word-off between Naseeruddin Shah's anonymous caller and Anupam Kher's police commissioner in the brilliant A Wednesday!.
Special Ops opens with an elaborate recreation of the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, carried out by terrorists of Pakistani terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). While the five terrorists were gunned down, Himmat believes there was a sixth member who escaped scot-free, and has evaded the radar ever since. Himmat's gut feeling gets confirmed when the suspected terrorist flees from right under his nose. Haunted by the ghost of his unsuccessful operation, Himmat starts pumping taxpayers' money into his classified operation until one day, he has to divulge the details of his secret mission for his organisation to sanction his mammoth expenditures.
Shuttling between past and the present timelines, Himmat begins to recount how he handpicked a group of agents, and deployed them in several Gulf countries in order to hunt down Ikhlaq Khan, the supposed sixth terrorist involved in the 2001 attacks. This motley group consists of the smooth-talking Farooq Ali (Karan Tacker), the middle-aged police inspector (Vinay Pathak), the chef Bala (Vipul Gupta), the sniper Avinash (Muzammil Ibrahim), the globe-trotting assassin Juhi (Saiyami Kher), and the hacker Ruhani (Meher Vij).
Much of the action is carried out by these foot soldiers, while Himmat doles out instructions from his cushy Delhi office. It could be because of his physical distance from all the action, or perhaps a deep-seated desire to watch Kay Kay Menon do slick stunts that, as an audience member, you do not feel the immediacy or the dynamism of the action.
Further, what really proves to be a disservice to Special Ops is the stealth of its narrative. This could be a creative choice on the part of the directors to evoke a similar sense of frustration that the auditing committee feels when Himmat deftly dodges their unending interrogation. The strategy could have worked had the narrative not rudderlessly meandered till almost its halfway mark, making the show a terribly arduous watch. By the time it picks up the pace and the pieces start fitting into the jigsaw, you have already lost your patience.
Karan Tacker, who has been assigned the lion's share of screen time besides Menon, tries hard to infuse Farooq with depth. It is strange that despite an elaborate backstory, the show reveals little about his character. He has been living undercover in Dubai for 19 years, away from his family and loved ones but his struggle to cope with the utter loneliness of the job finds expression in some inane scenes that completely fail to make you root for him. Even when Singh says with conviction that Farooq is an extremely brilliant detective, Farooq's sparks of brilliance elude the audience's watchful eye. The other members of Singh's team are made up of familiar faces who leave little to no impression even when they execute the zippiest tasks.
The lavish production design and cinematography take viewers across Dubai, Tehran, Baku, Tbilisi, Amman, and Istanbul. The frequent callbacks to major historical events such as the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and Ajmal Kasab's arrest do not really serve as value additions to the plot.
What Special Ops does get right, though, is its politics. Unlike its Netflix spiritual predecessor Bard of Blood, the series does not suffer from an inherent Islamophobia. Some may argue Special Ops plays on the classic good versus bad Muslim angle frequently seen in Bollywood movies (Varun Dhawan in Kalank, case in point) almost as an apology for depicting terrorists in a gruesome light. On closer inspection, though, one recognises it is merely a ploy to underline the fact that terrorism has no religion.
Perhaps it would have fared better for Special Ops to do away with the frills and focus on the titular special operation right from the get-go. The latter half of the show is decidedly far better than the first half. The twist in the end is unexpected, to say the least. It could well be a binge-worthy series in the times of self-quarantine.
However, if you have been a fan of Pandey's earlier works, Special Ops will leave you with cosmic-sized disappointment.
Special Ops is now streaming on Hotstar.
Watch the trailer here
(All images from YouTube)
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