India is in peril. Islamist terrorists are planning a major attack or two. They are working through their moles in the Indian intelligence service and local collaborators. Who you gonna call?
If Neeraj Pandey is the first name that comes to mind, it is because he has doggedly built narratives dedicated to spies and government agents racing against time to foil terrorist plots. The 46-year-old filmmaker certainly didn’t invent the spycraft genre, but he has a special claim on it through the movies he has written and directed as well as produced – A Wednesday, Baby, Aiyaary, Naam Shabana.
Pandey is once again in terrorist-hunting mode in the web series Special Ops, which will be streamed on Hotstar from March 17. Pandey has created and co-written Special Ops with Deepak Kingrani and Benazir Ali, and shares a directing credit with Shivam Nair, who helmed Baby (2015).
Special Ops has a sprawling cast led by Kay Kay Menon, whom Pandey had previously cast as a terrorist in Baby. Menon plays Himmat Singh, a Research and Analysis Wing employee who is convinced that a man named Ikhlaq is behind a series of terrorist strikes on India. Himmat assembles a team to help him execute his mission.
Fans of Pandey’s work will be familiar with the elements contained in the trailer of Special Ops – tense meetings in government offices; enemies of India operating from dusty regions; a team leader with a determined jawline and shining eyes who steers the operation past all hurdles; near misses and heart-stopping moments.
Pandey has directed movies in other genres too (a Mahendra Singh Dhoni biopic, for instance) but he appears most comfortable when he’s dreaming up ways in which the nation may be saved from malevolence. Whether Pandey likes it or not, he is stuck as the spycraft film director – only, he isn’t quite sure if his movies can be categorised as such.
“Even if I don’t say it, you will find people putting it in that box eventually, so at least the work is compared with our own work,” Pandey told Scroll.in during an interview at the office of his production company, Friday Filmworks, in Mumbai. “More than A Wednesday, I would say Baby kickstarted it majorly. We were talking to a lot of people from the armed forces, and one thing led to another. More people came up with their experiences. All of them had a story to share. We saw the potential in films [on similar themes] that were being made abroad. If we had the right tone, it could be a great story for audiences here to watch and consume.”
A strong streak of wish fulfillment runs through Pandey’s films, even as they present plausible scenarios. There is also a penchant for muscular nationalism, best summed up by the line Pandey wrote for Baby, which has entered popular culture and the political discourse in not always salubrious ways: “Akalmandi…ghar mein ghuskar maarne mein hai.” (The right thing to do is enter their homes and smash them right there.)
Pandey, who can be as economical with his words as his characters are, attributed the line to his research and interviews with government officials. “If it has come to me, it must have come from somewhere,” he said. “Any line we speak has been spoken by somebody else and picked up and worked on.”
The single-minded focus on Islamist terrorists and their local helpers – which is sought to be evened out by “good Muslim” characters – has also invited charges of Islamophobia. “I don’t respond [to that allegation] at all,” Pandey said. “My job as a filmmaker is to make a film and move on. I can’t control how you will perceive it. Even if I want to debate or try and convince you, I won’t be able to convince every audience member.”
Pandey seems himself as “a storyteller, nothing more or less, trying to deliver as efficiently and entertainingly as possible”. His films “cater to a certain audience without being jingoistic or playing to the gallery all the time”, he said, adding, “That has never been our style. I know what our motives were and how we started out, and thankfully, a bulk of the audience sees it.”
In some ways, the spycraft film has replaced the gangster drama, which created similar stands-offs between a hard-working police force fighting with one hand tied behind its back and better armed, highly motivated adversaries led by an arch-enemy. Pandey himself ventured into the gangster genre with the novel Ghalib Danger, which he wrote in 2013. Ghalib Danger is about a taxi driver in Mumbai who becomes an underworld don and relies on Mirza Ghalib’s poetry to get through his rampage.
A screen adaptation of Ghalib Danger is among Pandey’s upcoming projects. “We are still struggling with the choice of format – whether it will be for the web or a film,” he said.
Special Ops marks Pandey’s debut on a streaming platform. The web offers the opportunity to “make three films packed into a series”, Pandey observed, and to delve into narratives that cannot be contained by a movie’s restricted running time. “Like with a novel, the web allows you to go with a character, indulge yourself for a bit, come back to the main story,” he said. “If you are careful enough to understand that discipline, you can make a good series.”
Streaming is also discovering and re-discovering acting talent. The cast of Special Ops includes Karan Tacker, Saiyami Kher, Divya Dutta, Vinay Pathak, Muzammil Ibrahim, Meher Vij, Vipul Gupta, Sajjad Delafrooz, Parmeet Sethi, Gautami Kapoor, and Sharad Kelkar. The man in the driving seat is the talented actor Kay Kay Menon, who is in a role of substance after a long gap.
Pandey had directed Menon in a television film made for Zee TV over a decade ago, titled Ittefaq. “I really enjoyed shooting with him, and I cast him in Baby because I was looking for the next opportunity to work with him again,” Pandey said. “I felt that the feeling was mutual. When Special Ops was still germinating, I told him about the idea, and he was on board.”
Special Ops will have just one season for now. “It depends on the feedback and whether there is an audience waiting for the next season,” Pandey said. He is also working on a biopic of the ancient Indian philosopher Chanakya, starring Ajay Devgn, and his company is producing a remake of the Malayalam thriller Ishq (2019), starring Shane Nigam.