Over his 14-year filmography, after making a thrilling debut with A Wednesday (2008), Neeraj Pandey has established himself as one of the few storytellers in commercial Hindi cinema who wants to root his films in reality, rather than escape it. A Wednesday was a thriller that took inspiration from the 2006 Mumbai train bombings. Pandey made his streaming debut with Special OPS, which drew on the 2001 attack on Parliament. His biopic on cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), cherry-picked incidents from his life but shot extensively in real-life locations where the cricketer had grown up. As both a producer and a director, Pandey is interested in the world around him. His noteworthy films — which he often writes and produces — blend fact and realism with fiction and the gloss of commercial cinema. “From our first film, we had a sense of responsibility in terms of staying true to the events and incidents,” Pandey said when asked about self-censorship and the prevailing anxiety about depicting contemporary realities. “It still remains, and so does my responsibility as a storyteller — how people respond to these depictions and representations was not our prerogative, and never will be.”
Talking about his early filmmaking influences, Pandey said he grew up loving every kind of film and among his favorites were Billy Wilder, Vijay Anand and Frank Capra. He described these directors as “surrogate teachers” and said Satyajit Ray was a particularly big influence. “I was probably biased towards him, given that I was born and brought up in Kolkata, but the ease with which he could straddle different genres was marvelous. If you look at a Nayak (1967) and a Pather Panchali (1955), it would be hard to guess both these films are made by the same filmmaker,” he said.
Pandey’s latest project is Khakee: The Bihar Chapter, which will be available to stream on Netflix from November 25th, is a rustic crime drama set in the hinterlands of Bihar. Directed by Bhav Dhulia, the show stars Avinash Tripathy and Karan Tacker in lead roles, alongside featuring some formidable names in the supporting cast like Abhimanyu Singh (whose voice overpowers the trailer), Vinay Pathak, Ravi Kishan and Ashutosh Rana. “The origin point for ‘Khakee’ was my many interactions with Amit Lodha, a renowned IPS [Indian Police Service] officer and the author of the book ‘The Bihar Diaries’, which this show is based upon,” said Pandey. “We first met around 2017, and as Amit started telling me about his experiences in Bihar as a police officer, I became more and more curious and eventually suggested that he write a book about his experiences. In fact, we had bought the adaptation rights even before the book was published.”
While Lodha was readying his book for publishing, Pandey and his team were working on other projects like Special Ops, and it wasn’t until until mid-2020, at the peak of the Covid pandemic and a good three years after the early discussions, that they started focusing on Khakee. “It was a trying phase — working from home and getting the writing part done — there was only so much we do over Zoom calls, and the sessions spanned well over 8-10 months,” remembered Pandey.
Shooting Khakee came with its own set of challenges. “There was no infrastructure, considering we were shooting in the interiors of Jharkhand. Every piece of equipment had to be brought in from either Kolkata or Mumbai. Besides, it was a herculean task to constantly move a crew of 180 people from one village to other, on a regular basis, and to keep at it throughout the already-long schedule,” said Pandey, who was visibly excited to talk about the show. He said the pilot episode sets the tone for the show. “It charts two journeys at once — that of the birth of a cop (Tacker), and of a criminal (Tiwary). From there on, we embark on a journey, covering the years 2000 to 2006 in the lives of these characters. And the opening episode effectively establishes and encapsulates why the two protagonists choose the path they do.” Neeraj clarifies that the show is painstakingly loyal to Lodha’s book.
The world of Khakee, with its idealistic cop and many gunfights, seems to fit neatly into Pandey’s filmography, which shows the director’s penchant for cop thrillers. When prodded about this, Pandey chuckled. “We have dabbled in every genre possible,” he said. “It’s eventually the stories that fascinate us, not the genre. If a plot or its universe resonates with us, we pursue it with all sincerity. Earlier this year, we produced a film like Operation Romeo (an official remake of the 2019 Malayalam film Ishk). It was a very different film — not a crime film by any means — and we remain proud of it irrespective of its reception.”
During his conversation with Film Companion, Pandey also reflected upon the recent underwhelming turn that commercial Hindi cinema has been going through. “There’s no doubt that the audience is ever-evolving and that’s a big part of all the changes observed on the theatrical front,” he said. He also accepted the criticism made of contemporary Bollywood filmmakers — that they’re making films that aren’t relatable to a mass audience — but was not ready to accept the general argument of South Indian cinema’s commercial supremacy. “It’s not that everything down south is working either. They too have had their share of failures. And great things are happening everywhere, in varying measures. However, I also feel that the acknowledgment of these shifts and changes will only lead to better attempts and endurable films in the longer run — and such a process takes a lot of time,” Pandey said. According to him, the key is to respect the audience. “In these past one-and-a-half years, the audience got the chance to catch up with a lot of stuff. Suddenly, the times have changed, and there will be collateral damage. If you are underestimating the intelligence of the audience, then you would be in trouble — so we cannot take the liberty of making the tried-and-tested stuff anymore, hoping for it to work somehow. If you make A Wednesday again, maybe it won’t work. The key is to resonate with the issues of the people at that point of time. Obviously, the tastes are cyclical too at times, but if we need a story to work today, it needs to resonate with the youth today and their concerns.”
On the subject of trends and cyclical tastes, the recent years have seen an onslaught of violent dramas or shows on streaming platforms, which revolve around the world of crime and gangsters, and are set in the north Indian, rural heartland. Pandey was quick to point out what makes Khakee distinctive. “This show remains unique because of its perspective. I mean, have you ever heard a story of a man who was in IIT [Indian Institute of Technology], and eventually chose the profession of IPS, ending up posted in the most dangerous parts of our country? It’s a classic fish-out-a-water tale, a story about someone who is totally at sea with his surroundings. So the base itself was a huge differentiator for us, and sets our shows apart from anything else out there.” While casting Tiwary for Chandan, the gangster protagonist, was relatively easier — Tiwary both looked the part and was at home with the language — casting the cop protagonist was a challenge. “Amit Lodha has the personality of a serious academician and has a very uncop-like presence. If he comes and sits in front of you, there’s no way you can tell he is a cop and we wanted to cast someone who did not look like a cop. That’s where the character’s strength lay.” The casting for the supporting cast is also something which Pandey is proud of as a producer. “While some of them [the actors] had read the book and wanted to be part of the project, there were other actors who we had previously worked with so there was already a comfortable rapport,” he said. “It was a huge ensemble, and yet there were no hassles on sets in terms of screen time or shooting days. Everybody was game about being part of the team, doing their best for the show.”
Khakee is Pandey’s third attempt at long-format fiction in the streaming space. His Special Ops and its prequel (cheekily titled Special Ops 1.5) received an enthusiastic response from audiences. Speaking about the challenges of writing a long-format show, Pandey said, “While a web series gives us a far wider net to spread, in terms of story and characters and their backstories, it also means we are undertaking an equally laborious process, in terms of time and efforts to write. Since our team likes to be fully hands-on on scripting and research level, the process becomes all the more exhaustive. When we started work on Special OPS, we didn’t have any idea of how it would be received. But we knew that the OTT medium has a lot to offer, so we chose to learn on the go. While working on that show, we understood a lot about the basic technicalities, and nuances of long-format writing, and all those learnings came to great use when we began working on Khakee. Despite all the challenges, OTT remains a very exciting medium of storytelling. It is, after all, where the future lies.”