neeraj pandey

Neeraj Pandey, center. (photo provided)

MUMBAI — He’s been universally applauded and appreciated for his latest work—the web series “Special Ops” on Hotstar. The man has tried varied genres, but is specially considered a mastermind (!) behind anti-terrorist dramas like “A Wednesday!,” “Baby,” “Naam Shabana” and “Aiyaary.” Neeraj Pandey might make a sequel to “Special Ops” too, but this next season of this spy story, as of now, is not yet finalized.

Coming up from this maker also of the heist saga “Special 26,” the biopic “M.S.Dhoni: The Untold Story” and the funny short film “Ouch” (another espionage drama “Rustom,” the socially hard-hitting “Toilet—Ek Prem Katha” besides the award-winning Marathi film “Taranchye Bait” are also a part of his cinematic resume) is his ambitious historical “Chanakya.” With Ajay Devgn.

“Any story that excites me is put up to our production company, Friday Filmworks, and it is a general decision what to make or not make!” says Pandey, when India West talks to him. “There are efforts to classify me, but I want to make good stories of all kinds.”

Web series, he points out, provide great freedom in narrating a story in the way a filmmaker wants. “I have benefited from this platform. I was very clear when I was making “Special Ops” that there would be only one season. I personally find it very irritating when a story is half told! Of course, if we make a second season, we can tell a different story, again a complete one.”

With Shivam Nair as a co-director, Pandey divided the 8-episode series into alternate episodes being helmed by Nair and him. “We had great technicians and care would be taken that despite different DOPs it should not look as if the series had been shot—as it was sometimes even simultaneously!—by two different directors.”

Each episode has been quirkily named after a classic film, like “Guide,” “Sholay” or “Qurbani.” Why is that? Laughs Pandey as he answers, “That is my tribute to movies close to me, but mind you, the films’ names are relevant to that episode as well!”

Calling the web-based entertainment the medium of the current and the future for obvious reasons (“You are not bound by time or place and can pause and continue at your own comfort”), Pandey insists that there was no holding back on the budgets, as the show was extensively shot abroad, with spectacular action sequences. “Our vision was mammoth in size, and the mounting had to match. We had great HODs (heads of departments) and there was no holding back.”

He adds, “The series was like shooting a very long film! It was as exhausting and demanding, and what you saw is a result of everyone’s hard work and expertise. The coordination between the two units in 80 days of production was the key! And casting was the most exhaustive of all the processes as it took very long.”

Does he now think that his last film “Aiyaary,” which bombed badly despite its brilliance, would have worked in this format with a longer screenplay? “It’s all so rhetorical now!” he replies. “In those days, this platform had not taken off. And I wanted to experiment with the format I used in “Aiyaary” to see if it worked or not!”

Pandey laughs again when I mention that in “Special Ops” a man is shot in the head while eating noodles and in “Aiyaary” a man who is going to die wants to eat them as his last wish. Was this toucn intentiona? “I realized that barely anyone saw “Aiyaary” and I wanted to revisit the dark humor of that weird sequence in this series!” he replies.

Pandey’s meticulousness in his research stems from the fact that he is totally clued in with real stories. “I have more friends in the armed forces than in the film industry” he says. “We talk about their work and something gives me an idea for a story.”

Casting Kay Kay Menon in the lead and Sajjad Delafrooz as the main villain were inspired choices. “Sajjad did a small role in “Baby” and I found him very good. Kay Kay Menon and I have always wanted to do significant work together. I had directed him in my debut work, the tele-film “Ittefaq” that was a romantic story. Himmat Singh, his character, shows extraordinary tenacity and perseverance for 20 years, and refuses to give up chasing the truth. In any field, we must have this quality, and “Special Ops” principally is about this trait.”

Last but nowhere the least, when is he making a film with Akshay Kumar? Or is it, as the buzz goes, that they are no longer on good terms after making five films with him? Pandey laughs and answers, “People will say anything, but who does such things in today’s times? When we have a good story that needs him, we will get together!”

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