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Special Ops review: Neeraj Pandey's digital debut is disappointing, but Kay Kay Menon delivers a gripping performance

Release Date: 17 Mar 2020

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Suyog Zore

This espionage web-series reveals, once again, the director's fascination with subjects based on terrorism.

Neeraj Pandey makes his digital debut with Special Ops, an eight-part web-series which began streaming on Hotstar last month. The web-series bears an uncanny resemblance to the director's Hindi film, Baby (2015), as well as to recent espionage thrillers like Bard Of Blood on Netflix and The Family Man on Amazon Prime Video.

From his first film A Wednesday (2008) to Baby and then Aiyaary (2018), Pandey has shown his fascination for subjects based on terrorism. The director, who has co-written Special Ops with Deepak Kingrani and Benazir Ali Fida, had a larger canvas this time, and as a viewer, one expected him to delve deeper into the subject of terrorism and explore its political, financial and religious aspects. Unfortunately, nothing of that sort happens in Special Ops.

The web-series is the story of a 19-year-old manhunt for the missing sixth terrorist in the 2001 Parliament attack. Five terrorists were killed, but RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) officer Himmat Singh (Kay Kay Menon) believes there was a sixth terrorist, the mastermind, who slipped away.

The story starts with Himmat Singh being questioned by Naresh Chaddha (Parmeet Sethi) and DK Banerjee (Kali Prasad Mukherjee) for irregularities in the distribution of funds allotted for their secret operations. The first two episodes draw you in, especially as Himmat Singh talks about how he learnt about Ikhlaq Khan, the suspected sixth terrorist, and how, despite submitting evidence, his theory was ridiculed by all.

Himmat Singh then assembles a team of five undercover agents, Farooq Ali (Karan Tacker), Ruhani Syed (Meher Vij), Juhi (Saiyami Kher), Balakrishna Reddy (Vipul Gupta) and Avinash (Muzammil Ibrahim), who are placed in different countries in West Asia. 

It's a very straighforward narrative, where everything is black or white. We are introduced to the bad guys and the good guys in the beginning. Apart from their introduction in the first episode, we don't learn much about their personalities or lives. What we learn is that the good guys are efficient intelligence agents with excellent fighting skills. As for the bad guys, all we we know is that they want to destroy India.

But when you have five characters who are headlining the series, there must be some emotional connection which is established between the characters and the audience. However, except for Himmat Singh, we learn nothing about the other agents, making them flat and boring. You don't really care about them. 

Despite being an eight-part series, Special Ops only manages to scratch the surface of how actual espionage work is done. Pandey and Shivam Nair, co-directors on the series, refrain from exploring intricate details of the planning behind secret operations. Instead, they rely more on action to create thrill and suspense.

From the third to the fifth episode, the show gets repetitive and the plot just doesn't move forward. We neither learn anything new about these terrorists and their modus operandi nor do we see any character development. Thankfully, the last two episodes are thrilling as the directors succeed in creating tension and one gets a sense of the high stakes involved in the hunt. We wish they had managed to create the same sense of urgency in the earlier episodes.

The show also spends substantial time on Himmat Singh's family, but it does not have any relevance to the main story. Probably they were setting it up for the second season, but that's no excuse to waste crucial time on unrelated sub-plots, especially when you are dealing with a race-against-time scenario.

The script also has too many loopholes and is full of many conveniences. Hence, it is difficult to believe that this is a gritty, realistic espionage thriller. Another factor that the web-series lacks is slick, fast-paced action. The action scenes look too well choreographed and the actors performing them look stiff. 

On the technical level, Special Ops is impressive, especially with Sudhir Palsane and Arvind Singh's cinematography. Some establishing shots of a wide stretch of the desert are quite impressive.

Though the series is unevenly paced, the direction by Nair and Pandey is not. It helps that their direction styles are very similar and unless you see the name in the credits, it's almost impossible to ascertain who has directed a particular episode.

It is also refreshing to see that despite the many opportunities, both directors have refrained from making Special Ops overtly nationalistic. It would have been pretty easy for them to encash on this new nationalistic wave. 

On the acting front, Menon is in complete control of his character, from his expressions to the body language of an espionage officer. The actor nails it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the other artistes. While the script does not offer them much, every actor is seen walking around with one expression throughout the series.

Overall, Special Ops had great potential. Had the series focused more on exploring how intelligence operations work and the political hand behind acts of terrorism, the show would have been a winner.

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