Special OPS review: Neeraj Pandey and Kay Kay Menon deliver first Hotstar original almost worth the self-isolation
Creator - Neeraj Pandey
Cast - Kay Kay Menon, Karan Tacker, Saiyami Kher, Meher Vij, Vinay Pathak, Sana Khan
The benefits Special OPS might accrue from being released at a time when theatres across the country have been advised to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic are equalled by the fact that Hotstar’s streaming series is third out of the gate after Netflix and Amazon’s very similar Bard of Blood and The Family Man. Comparisons might be unfair, but they’re inevitable.
Fortunately for creator Neeraj Pandey, few man-made things could be as bad as Bard of Blood, a series that has single-handedly lifted huge pressure off the shoulders of every show in existence, and also those still waiting to be produced. Unlike that Netflix series, Special OPS, despite being very uneven, actually respects spycraft.
Watch the Special OPS trailer here
Much of its action – and it is very old-fashioned in its depiction of espionage – takes place from behind its protagonist’s computer screen. Like Srikant from The Family Man, Kay Kay Menon’s Himmat Singh in Special OPS is the sort of regular Joe you wouldn’t notice on the streets, although unlike Manoj Bajpayee, Menon has a slightly sociopathic glint in his eye.
When we are first introduced to Himmat, he is making life-or-death decisions on his mobile phone, deciding the fate of human beings in tacit, two-word commands. “Thok do,” he hisses into his phone, waiting to be summoned for an inquiry that has been launched into his activities by a newly elected government.
Over the years, Himmat has spent crores in taxpayer money on vaguely defined ‘miscellaneous’ expenses. The show is framed, like the first season of True Detective, in flashbacks, with Himmat narrating his adventures to a couple of comical ‘sarkari babus’. It isn’t, however, as sombre as that brilliant HBO show. Nor is it is bitingly funny as The Family Man. Think of Special OPS as a sort of spiritual sequel to Pandey’s Baby and Naam Shabana -- just as affectionate of spy movie tropes and as averse to Bollywood’s pandering nationalism.
Pandey has enlisted his Naam Shabana director Shivam Nair to help helm Special OPS, and although each of them is credited separately, I hear they divided duties based on storylines, much like the approach Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap employed on Sacred Games.
While Himmat Singh braves government interference and toils hard to protect his country in the primary plotline, his apostles on the field are sent on globe-trotting missions. Refreshingly, Special OPS is both more refined and better executed than virtually every series that Hotstar has released under its newly christened ‘Hotstar Specials’ banner, although that isn’t saying much. It’s no coincidence that it’s the first wholly original show that the streamer has produced, after a string of underwhelming remakes.
Pandey and Nair effectively recreate the Parliament attacks of 2001 in the opening scene of episode one, thrillingly narrating an incident that has curiously not been depicted on screen as often as you’d imagine, although it does provide a taste of the excesses that the show routinely indulges in, such as speed-ramping and gratuitous establishing shots.
I was, however, particularly impressed by the use of era-appropriate vehicles in the scene, which doesn’t sound like a major achievement, but you’d be surprised at how many (big and small) shows overlook the importance of period accuracy. I remember spotting a fancy modern SUV in Netflix’s ‘60s-set The Spy, and multiple Wagon Rs in Ashim Ahluwalia’s ‘80s-era Miss Lovely.
In the aftermath of the Parliament attacks, Himmat is convinced that there was a sixth member in the terrorist team, and that he has gotten away scott-free. Some viewers might find Pandey’s blend of fact and fiction to be understandably off-putting – we are, after all, talking about a rather touchy subject, and a real-life incident whose perpetrator is still at large. Like Amazon’s recent Hunters, which imagined made-up atrocities committed by the Nazis, as if the real ones weren’t terrible enough, Special OPS makes no mention of Masood Azhar and Afzal Guru.
Instead, it sets its sights on a fictional villain named Ikhlaq Khan. Much of the show’s plot deals with Himmat and his team working together to track him down. There are minor forays into Himmat’s personal life, but these scenes could easily have been done away with. Himmat’s wife has nothing to do, and his Srikant-esque surveillance of his teenage daughter feels needlessly tacked on.
Perhaps the show could have benefitted from having its objectively oblique protagonist be a blank slate. The best spies always are, and Menon’s central performance certainly has an air of mystery about it.
It also highlights the comparatively less nuanced performances of the supporting cast, made up almost entirely of television actors such as Karan Tacker and Sana Khan, committed but not nearly in the same league as Menon.
It’s curious to observe how our film industry meanders around tricky themes such as nationalism in times like this. Politically, Special OPS paints a rather problematic possibility, one that imagines the outcome of mass oppression of a single community resulting in retaliation that to some degree the show shrugs its shoulders at, as if it is to be expected.
Special OPS is a minor win for Hotstar. It might not justify a weekend spent in self-isolation, but if you’re already prepared to re-subscribe before the streamer (this time for real) rolls out Disney+, it might just help you bide your time.
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