After a detour into patriotic sports biopic territory, Neeraj Pandey is back to doing what he does best with Aiyaary.

Espionage, globe-spanning machinations of devious men, and above all, men in uniform serving their country – Pandey’s pet passions that have guided A Wednesday! (2008), Special 26 (2013), Baby (2015) and Naam Shabana (2017) form the crux of Aiyaary.

The trailer shows Sidharth Malhotra and Manoj Bajpayee as soldiers in the Indian Army. After Jai (Malhotra) goes rogue and his senior, Abhay (Bajpayee), hunts him down. But bigger forces appear to be at play. The film also features Anupam Kher, Naseeruddin Shah, Kumud Mishra, Adil Hussain, Pooja Chopra, Vikram Gokhale and Rakul Preet Singh.

Jai and Abhay are also masters of disguise or, as the film calls them, “aiyaar”, the Persian word for shapeshifter.

Aiyaary came to me in a very nascent form when we were doing the research and shoot for Baby,” Pandey said. “Then I had to move to MS [Dhoni: The Untold Story]. I decided to come back to Aiyaary later. It is a very layered story. I knew the start, middle and the end, but the script turned out to be much layered than how I thought it would be.” The movie will be released in February.

Aiyaary (2018).

Pandey says Aiyaary is closest to his breakthrough, A Wednesday!, in terms of tone. Would he say that this is his most complex screenplay? “That would be a right way to describe it.”

A Wednesday! combined a police procedural with an anti-establishment vigilante drama. The movie, starring Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher, was a sleeper hit, and Pandey began to get calls from several people within the police and the army. Over time, he claims to have made more friends in the armed forces than outside of it. “I meet people from these circles and they have a different regard for you,” Pandey said. It is from them that he derives most of his material for his films, including Aiyaary.

Being in such close quarters to the subjects of his films can also cause his screenplays to be bogged down by unnecessary detail. “It is my job to ensure that does not happen,” Pandey said. “I have to keep a story as engaging as possible without indulging in my fetish for detail. The story has to have the right mix of plot, subplot, structure, detail and character motivations. I try my best to stick to the original arc of a story and not get carried away with any loose thread.”

A Wednesday! (2008)

Pandey has had an extensive career in television, where he wrote and directed his own scripts. In his filmmaking career since 2009, he has directed five features and one short film, as well as written nine screenplays, three of which have been made into films directed by others – the Bengali psychological thriller The Royal Bengal Tiger (2014), directed by Rajesh Ganguly, and the Hindi films Total Siyapaa (2014), directed by E Niwas, and Naam Shabana (2017), the spy thriller directed by Shivam Nair.

Pandey also managed to write a crime novel in between, Ghalib Danger (2013), about a Mumbai taxi driver who becomes a crime lord and believes that Mirza Ghalib’s poetry can solve any problem.

“Actually, I am a very lazy writer.” Pandey said about his writing method. “I don’t enjoy writing over long periods of time. I enjoy writing in short bursts. The shorter it is, the more intense. And I don’t write daily. I choose an idea and nourish it in my head as much as I can. I thrash out a start, middle and an end, and then I start writing. I may not stick to what I originally planned but I do being only when the story is fully formed in my head.”

This was the case with A Wednesday! Pandey thought of the ending first and then worked his way backwards to write the rest of the story.

Pandey’s influences include screenwriters William Goldman and Salim-Javed and the films of Chetan and Vijay Anand, Nasir Hussain, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra. A notable aspect of Pandey’s movies is that he writes small but substantial roles for his supporting actors, and gives them enough lines and distinctive mannerisms to ensure that they are memorable. For example, Jimmy Shergill’s no-nonsense police officer in A Wednesday!, Divya Dutta’s con woman in Special 26, Anupam Kher’s bumbling spy Shukla in Baby, and Manoj Bajpayee, who has starred in six of Pandey’s projects.

Special 26 (2013).

“I like to see great sparring between actors who are not insecure about their craft,” Pandey said about his tendency to cast prominent faces in supporting roles. “Also, with great actors, you don’t need to worry about their performances. The pacing is taken care of. I let them do their thing within the boundaries of my vision and they take off from there.” He says he has never written characters with any actor in mind.

Pandey has not announced any project yet after Aiyaary. There is the abandoned film Crack, which was supposed to star Akshay Kumar. Its script still needs reworking, according to Pandey. Meanwhile, Ghalib Danger might get made into a film, but not any time soon.

“I wrote Ghalib Danger as a novel because I had so much to write and so much detail to encompass, that I needed to first write it as a novel,” Pandey said. “It would be difficult to shoot all the things I had in mind. As for who will play the lead in the adaptation, the project is still light years away, so I have not thought of it.”

Neeraj Pandey. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.