Special Ops on Hotstar Review: The 2001 Parliament Attacks Births This Gripping But Distracted Tale

Streaming on Hotstar, Neeraj Pandey’s stylish ode to the decades of hush operations and mush tales of nationhood is too bloated.
Special Ops on Hotstar Review: The 2001 Parliament Attacks Births This Gripping But Distracted Tale

Director: Neeraj Pandey, Shivam Nair
Producer: Shital Bhatia
Writer: Neeraj Pandey, Deepak Kingrani, Benazir Ali Fida
Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Karan Tacker, Vipul Gupta, Saiyami Kher, Meher Vij and Muzammil Ibrahim
Streaming Platform: Hotstar

It was winter in Delhi 2001. Five terrorists stormed the Indian parliament, killing 8 security personnel and one gardener. Before they could get to their actual targets — the politicians bickering inside — all five were gunned down. Criminal proceedings would begin. A Delhi University professor would be accused and acquitted. Afzal Guru, in a contentious court proceeding, would eventually be hanged to death. News about Davinder Singh, a deputy superintendent in Kashmir, who was found this year to have been colluding with terrorists, guiding Guru throughout, enters and exits our imagination.

In the midst of all of this ambiguity, Neeraj Pandey and his team of writers decided to take a rather tangential and fictional take on the events this attack has rolled out. There is a lot of press about how this is the first celluloid depiction of the actual attack. I am not sure what the responsibility of a filmmaker is in taking up a cloudy event and fictionalizing it anyway.

R&AW Agent Himmat Singh (A brilliant Kay Kay Menon who oscillates easily between his assured composure at work and his jittery walking around eggshells at home with his wife and teenage daughter whose phone he hacks) believes there was a sixth man in charge of this attack. No one believes him. Singh and his agents across the globe — Jordan, Iran, Dubai, Azerbaijan — work for 19 years to find him, and kill him. 

The whole show — 8 episodes, 1 hour each — is an attempt to show that, indeed, he exists. Alongside, Singh and his agents put out fires, and bungle bomb operations. It's great fun when it is tense. There is a superb moment, a one-shot take, where the camera follows one of the agents from behind as he walks into a supermarket buying leafy vegetables till he realizes that he is the only one there. It's a long take and the tension builds. You don't know when the camera will become the perspective of the attacker, but you know for sure that the agent is going to be attacked.

But as with 8 hours of content, the tension slackens, and the subplots tire. For example, in order to get in touch with this sixth person, one of Singh's agents Farooq (a strapping Karan Tacker) gets in touch with one person, who connects him to someone, who will connect him to someone else, who will connect him to the sixth person. This is not an exaggeration. In pursuit of this convoluted tale, a lot of the stories fall by wayside, you know absolutely nothing about the personal lives of the agents, just glimpses of flirtations and agony. 

If you have 8 hours and you are unable to give rounded backgrounds to your 6 main characters, as writers, you must introspect. Besides, the writing is also a little lazy in places. A character says "Hum tumhare bare mein sab kuch jaante hain", and right after that he genuinely asks "Tum Dubai kisse milne aate ho?" The side characters who investigate Singh for the finances he has been pummeling into his covert operations have an annoying screen presence and that whole track feels like a wasted opportunity. (The show begins with them investigating Singh and through the investigation, the flashbacks and explanations introduce characters — it is too underwhelming as a narrative choice.)

A lot of attention, however, has been given to the aerial shots which are simply spectacular and put things in perspective. (Sudheer Palsane and Arvind Singh, the cinematographers appear first in the end credits of each episode) Even when the Parliament Attack is happening, the aerial shots show the relative calm of the entire area, as only one spot is embroiled in chaos — as if the world beyond is untouched by endemic, ephemeral bouts of violence. Beyond a point, however, these aerial shots tire and I would rather close ups of the agents who haven't met their families in years if not decades. If this is an ode to them, as the makers claim, why do I not feel anything for them? 

It is quite obvious from the get-go that the duration seems to have been a before-thought, while the episode titles, all named after iconic movies, an after-thought. (There is a superb comic moment when the police are making an accused stand on two chairs, one leg on each, and they are pulling the chairs away from each other. "Ajay Devgn ka fan hai," the police says, and I chuckled because I got the reference. Though, I got none of the episode title references.)

This is not to say that the series does not work. It does. It has its political moments too, however subtle, throwing digs at Demonetization, and not valorizing any political party, which, let's be honest, itself is a political act these days. But I keep coming back to the first thought I had when I heard of this show, that of a maker's responsibility to a cloudy political event. Like shrapnel it kept puncturing my viewing experience.

There is a quiet moment when Singh interviews Kasab after 26/11 and Kasab tells him of how during training they were made to take steroids, LSD, and cocaine to prevent them from sleeping. It's a quiet moment when a monster talks about pain. You have taken a reality, the 26/11, and added a veneer of quiet thought to it. Why couldn't you have done the same for the 2001 Parliament attack?

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