The world according to Neeraj Pandey. Observed by Sreehari Nair.
In Special Ops, Kay Kay Menon plays Himmat Singh, father to a teenage daughter, and father-figure to a bunch of young operatives working for R&AW's secret services squad.
The operatives are spread across the globe and Himmat is the Domestic Daddy who, while answering the call of duty, transforms into a Global Daddy.
The man's got his professional and personal wires so crossed that he cannot help but bring his paranoia home.
And so, when not surveying international terrorists, he's hacking into his daughter's mobile phone and checking her chats.
Sure that's improper behaviour on daddy's part; but in terms of the character's dramatic conception, this flaw in him, is what completes Himmat.
Special Ops's only real achievement is this bit of restless comedy at its centre.
This is otherwise a web series happy to serve you a brew of hot news and conspiracy theories.
It's for those who share some of Himmat's paranoia and are looking for easy release.
The viewers are helped along by the show's narrative format.
We see Himmat being summoned and interrogated by two senior officers.
The subject of the interrogation is the 28 crores that Himmat's squad has spent in the 11 years of its operations.
We see Himmat confessing that all this money was spent on tailing one terrorist (A shadowy figure, Iqlakh Khan, who, Himmat suspects, was the uncaught perpetrator of the 2001 Parliament attacks, now looming large).
We see members of Himmat's squad throwing a great deal of cash away at clubs and other avenues of fun; this extravagant spending, it's implied, is their bridge to Iqlakh.
I couldn't help but wonder at different points: 'Man, National Security is costly business.'
And at other times: 'What a great, snazzy life!'
If you too are left seduced by the lifestyle of these secret agents, it's because the clumsy parts of their lives aren't treated clumsily enough here.
The hand-to-hand combats leach out your sense of reality, and the violence is the sort that the audience can cheer.
In sequences, of someone shooting someone else down, there's as much emotional heft as you can feel in a game of Counter-Strike.
Frankly, you don't care much for anybody on the screen, except one, and that person surely isn't asking for your compassion.
It is part of the greatness of actors like Kay Kay Menon, Adil Hussain, and Manav Kaul that they never try to gain your sympathy; they have too much pride in their craft to stoop that low.
Menon's is a face that betrays a low tolerance for mediocrity and when he's made to shed some of that toughness here, the sudden change in his disposition draws you into the show.
Himmat's pleasant sparring with his wife (Gautami Kapoor, smiling assuredly, luminously), and his pow-wows on etiquette with Inspector Abbas (Vinay Pathak) are some of the best sequences in Special Ops.
There's this one time when Inspector Abbas performs a personal favour for his boss and tops it off with a "Jai Hind, Sir!" And Himmat's response there -- "Why waste your Jai Hinds on personal work?" -- comes straight out of left field.
I kept wishing that these light sequences weren't digressions but the show itself.
Special Ops, however, (though, ostensibly, directed by Shivam Nair), is set in the Neeraj Pandey universe.
And what would this universe do without slow-talking Islamic terrorists, fast-talking emotionless spies, moles, dim politicians and whimpering girls?
(An aside: I hate this business of creating Cinematic Universes, as much as I hate the word Auteur. Both these critical formulations seem like efforts to rationalise the work of artists who operate inside a limited palette).
Pandey's whole oeuvre is built on a single idea: 'The terrorist is a pest who must be exterminated like one.'
And can you argue with this line of thought, except on the grounds of it being too populist a line of thought?
So he's a populist, but then how different does that make him from a film-maker who thinks it is okay to show a lecher being beheaded?
Populism, I suppose, isn't Pandey's biggest sin.
What rankles me always in a Neeraj Pandey creation is his mistaking of his characters's emptiness for clear-thinking.
Pandey's characters kill with a certain cool, they talk in clipped speech, their movements inside a frame seem heavily restricted -- and he, I believe, sees all this as representing his no-nonsense cinematic approach.
To me, they represent a lack of emotional maturity, an inability to see the complete picture.
For evidence of this foreshortened imagination, look to the staging.
The events foregrounding most Neeraj Pandey scenes are often very spicy, but the backgrounds are always dull and inert.
In this wWeb series too, there's a tense wedding scene, a fiery scene inside Parliament, a scene in a marketplace -- and in each, the background is composed of a few lifeless, bobbing heads.
Great artists build a world and allow a piece of fiction to emerge from it.
Neeraj Pandey's sensibility is closer to those bestseller writers who believe in, giving the audience a few 'immediately edgy' plot-points and then, looking for a world to place them in.
This is why the clubs in Special Ops all seem to scream, 'Let's bop!'
This is why the Arabic locations seem to suggest, 'We have a surplus of sand here!'
Also, because Pandey so consciously wants to be no-nonsense, he seems to have not thought past a set of basic clichés.
There's frequent breaking into top-shots so as to make the geography more clear; and there's sudden cutting into slow motion so as to make the wrinkles on Kay Kay Menon's forehead more visible.
The inspirational music tries to negate a lot of the bunkum and tell us that every 'mission' being shown has great legitimacy, and means something to those carrying it out -- though the emotionless faces would imply otherwise.
Even the incursions of comedy in high-stakes situations feel like calculated attempts to get you.
However, as a spectator, you know you are being played.
As much as I make light of Special Ops, the truth is that it isn't too different from those thrillers and spy movies that Hollywood churns out, and which, till about a few years ago, critics in India would treat as 'Gifts from the White Gods' (I am also including in this gang of critics, people who were Marvel fans -- before Scorsese lit them up).
Those who had accepted those pieces of kitsch with poise shouldn't ideally have any problem with Special Ops's wham-bam sensibility.
I have always thought spy and superhero films campy and as when watching those films, I was laughing through the self-seriousness exhibited in Special Ops.
My laughing, however, stopped when it dawned on me that in shows like this there's an inherent contempt for the common human experience.
Those who are not secret agents are treated as margin figures, speaking a lot but making not much sense and, ignorant of who is pulling the strings.
Neeraj Pandey has clearly meant the two senior officers (who interrogate Himmat Singh) to be stand-ins for us, the audience.
The officers ask bland questions and express great shock at Himmat's answers.
This is what Pandey thinks we are, at best.
On the other hand, the cool, matter-of-fact, all-knowing Himmat Singh -- created out of some cursory readings -- is meant to be a stand-in for Neeraj Pandey; he is Pandey's vision of himself.
He may want to make no-nonsense art, but the man, I suppose, is quite the fantasist.
Making shows like Special Ops is, perhaps, the closest Neeraj Pandey will get, to living a double life.