Neeraj Pandey has emerged as a master at patriotic thrillers. His “Aiyaary” (2018) was, as he told me, an experiment he wanted to make. I loved that one, but the convoluted tale failed to connect at the box-office, for which I do not blame the general audience. But with a directorial repertoire that includes “A Wednesday!” and “Baby,” he has proved his acumen even with “Naam Shabana” and “Rustom” as writer and producer. As also a man good at thrilling content across genres, he has delivered “Special 26” and the short film “Ouch.”
This time, Pandey, as writer and director, takes the leisurely route of a web series, which would have worked wonders for “Aiyaary.” But he also corrects the convolution to easily comprehensible levels. After naming each episode from a well-known film—“Kagaz Ke Phool,” “Guide,” “Mughal-E-Azam,” “Hum Kisise Kum Naheen,” “Chaudhvin Ka Chand,” “Qurbani,” “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” and “Sholay”— he gives us a 6-hour show spread over 8 episodes that is difficult not to binge-watch.
The ingenuity in the writing comes from protagonist Himmat Singh’s contention that apart from the five terrorists killed during the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, it is the sixth man who was actually the leader, and he was never arrested. His contention spins from the fact that he has actually seen the mastermind escape after he followed him on a tip-off. He is also convinced that it was the master-planner who was behind later attacks, including 26/11.
Singh works as an intelligence guy with his own crack team strategically located internationally, in places like Istanbul, Teheran, Baku, Dubai, Tbilisi and Amman. To keep them at work, he needs endless resources, and the initial narrative is interspersed with an audit enquiry into the Rs. 28 crore (!) he has spent from official funds over 19 years! The interaction between those interrogating him (Parmeet Sethi and Kali Prasad Mukherjee) and his memories triggered by their questions is the way the first few episodes principally come out, even as the various characters, good and bad, are introduced.
Just as Pandey cannot avoid a kind of reprise of the consumption of noodles by an enemy about to die (a memorable if indulgent sequence in “Aiyaary!”) here, he also cannot avoid showing the procedural interference by bureaucracy into the efficacy of good workers. There is a cynical hint of a tech deal scam because of which Singh has “psychological power” over a minister (Suhaila Kapoor) and we even have a Muslim who traffics in Muslim girls and a look-back at a Muzaffarnagar communal conflagration that has a direct relevance on things happening in the climax.
The writers weave a smart web of layers. Someone called Noor Baksh (S.M. Zaheer) across the border is busy in planning explosions, including during a Pak leader’s visit in India. Baksh is in cahoots with Hafiz (Sajjad Delafrooz), a suave, businessman who is in touch with one Ikhlaq Khan, who is the man Singh has found is the missing mastermind.
Singh’s ace agent, Farooq Ali (Karan Tacker), poses as Amjad with Hafiz as he hopes to get to see (and thus kill) Ikhlaq through him on Singh’s advice. The other agents are equally competent: Avinash (Muzammil Ibrahim), Bala (Vinod Gupta), Ruhani (Meher Vij) and Juhi (Saiyami Kher).
There are many other characters, like Singh’s wife (Gautami Kapoor) and daughter (Revathi Pillai), his assistant Karan (Karan Ashar), his loyal constable Abbas (Vinay Pathak), Hafiz’s right-hand Ismail Hassan (Rajat Kaul), a security head Surya (Sharad Kelkar), two women with an agenda who were riot victims (Divya Dutta and Pakkhi Gupta) and more. There is even an interrogation of Ajmal Kasab in the 26/11 case and one of the most elevating sequencs is Farooq’s introduction.
And the script focuses on the twists and counter-twists and yet sticks to the plot as it heads inexorably towards destruction planned in India.
Singh’s character is the pivot—he just seems to know—or guess—everything and is a master strategist—at work and at home. Kay Kay Menon has probably put in his career’s finest performances here, and after him would rank Sajjad Delafrooz as the oh-so-cool yet supremely dangerous Hafiz (the murder sequence in the hotel is brilliantly done and acted).
Gautami Kapoor is superb as Singh’s wife and Suhaila Kapoor creates the right amount of repulsion. Parmeet Sethi, Kali Prasad Mukherjee and Karan Ashar as the office assistant are fantastic. Everyone else does well—there are no hysterics, nothing over-the-top for an OTT platform (!!) and the undercurrent of menace, humor or a mix (as indicated) adds to the rich atmospheric feel of the story.
Technically, the film has sweeping visuals (cinematographers Sudhir Palsane and Arvind Singh), especially of the exotic locations, and technically, the show is rich. The music is also skilled, and, for the script, Kathikuloth Praveen’s editing is perfect.
In all, “Special OPS’ is one of the best I have seen on the web. And the directors may take a bow.
Created by: Neeraj Pandey
Directed by: Neeraj Pandey & Shivam Nair
Written by: Neeraj Pandey, Deepak Kingrani & Benazir Ali Fida
Music: Advait Nemlekar
Starring: Kay Kay Menon, Karan Tacker, Vipul Gupta, Aditya Sawant, Abhiroy Singh, Sana Khan, Muzammil Ibrahim, Saiyami Kher, Meher Vij, Divya Dutta, Vinay Pathak, Sajjad Delafrooz, Parmeet Sethi, Sharad Kelkar, Gautami Kapoor, Revathi Pillai, Rajat Kaul, Pakkhi Gupta, Suhaila Kapoor, Kali Prasad Mukherjee, Karan Ashar, Tanaya Sachdeva & others