Director: Bhav Dhulia
Writers: Ritesh Shah, Benazir Ali Fida
Cast: Mohit Raina, Kashmira Pardeshi, Sushant Singh, Anupam Kher, Navneet Malik, Manjari Fadnnis, Ayesha Raza Mishra
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
What can I say? I’m a glutton for punishment. I concluded my review of the first four episodes of the dubiously titled The Freelancer by declaring – but mostly hoping – that I wouldn’t be back for the rest. But here I am, struggling to find new words to criticise the last three episodes. You could simply refer to the previous review, of course, because nothing has changed. The problems are inherited with pride.
As they often do in a Neeraj Pandey-helmed production, self-serious men still speak in a clipped, no-nonsense voice, as if they were Aaron Sorkin bots fitted with wrong algorithms. A smile is still a crime. As if to offset the one-note film-making, the characters are perpetually in a hurry. It’s hard to tell a morning jog from an aggressive chase. An ISIS-controlled town in Syria looks like a Bollywood set fitted with lazy Muslim stereotypes. The top-angle shots play out like sprinters stuck in a marathon race. At one point, a drone-operated camera takes so long to reveal a town on the other side of a hill that even the background score runs out of steam and patience.
Based on the 2018 book A Ticket to Syria, The Freelancer unfolds as a slow-motion parody of itself. The first four episodes sputtered towards an extraction mission. An Indian mercenary named Avinash Kamath (Mohit Raina) – the cinematic equivalent of a freelance writer running a popular Substack newsletter – plans to rescue Aliya Khan (Kashmira Pardeshi), his late colleague’s daughter who was abducted by the radicalized family she married into. We see her torrid existence in Syria, while Avinash battles his own demons – alcoholism, a wife with depression, a tragic past, a mentor played by Anupam Kher – in pursuit of purpose.
After a lot of narrative whataboutery, Avinash finally embarks on this personal mission across these three episodes. He recruits former badass colleagues with the derivative swag of a spy who seems to enjoy signing off with “your ticket is in the mail”. The race-against-time trope emerges through Avinash’s friction with the CIA, who threaten to bomb the entire town – with Aliya as collateral damage – to wipe out the terrorist outfit. Avinash and his team must pluck out Aliya before the Americans do what Americans do. The Arabs are incidental to the plot.
The series has nowhere to hide anymore. The build-up implied that the extraction might be cool and complex. But it’s the opposite of cool and complex. Scenes are staged with the subtlety of a gunfight; a suspicious immigration officer at Dubai airport narrows his eyes and twists his face so hard that he stamps the passport as if he’s tired of emoting. Aliya’s light-eyed husband is still dim-witted as ever. She spends her nights in the bathroom, exchanging photos and texts with Avinash on a second phone that she’s hidden in her cupboard. He knows she’s up to something, even catching her in the act, but stops short of checking her hands or belongings. I’d like to believe that he’s in denial about her “cheating”, but it’s more like the screenplay that’s in denial about human nature. Avinash’s backstory – and the way Kher’s character ‘hired’ him during a botched assassination attempt – is poorly designed. His wife’s mental condition, too, is appropriated for the sake of drama.
The premise is so conscious of being exposed that it turns to gimmicks. For instance, part of the plan involves finding an Aliya doppelganger. A hipster, gum-chewing actress named Sonia Shah cracks these ‘life’ auditions in Mumbai, a la Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om (2007) or Shilpa Shetty in Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994). The track is so flimsy – Sonia behaves like a Disney character in a princess-in-paradise romcom – that it comes across as an excuse to offer Kashmira Pardeshi a double role. There’s more. When Avinash and team infiltrate the town in broad daylight, it’s deserted because every single resident is offering namaz at the local mosque. The escape is shockingly smooth.
So the series manufactures a conflict: The identity of the burqa-clad woman Avinash extracts. The viewer knows it’s not Aliya – because her British-born neighbour was just as desperate to escape – and yet the scene is milked until there’s not a shred of suspense left. Random red herrings remain the trademark of The Freelancer. Another example is the identity of the CIA agent anonymously communicating with Avinash. We are led to believe, through the casting and camerawork, that it’s the NRI; even Avinash assumes it’s her. But it’s the white guy who turns out to be the empath, a twist so performative that if this series were a person, it’d be a child playing inane pranks on his parents to get attention. All he’s doing is betraying everyone’s trust for a couple of cheap thrills.
Logistical challenges aren’t an issue for a mythical hero like Avinash – money, forged passports, weapons, guts – and yet the series insists that he’s a real-world chap. He must enter Syria illegally through Lebanon like a good boy, must (sort of) respect the laws of physics, and must have a tortured relationship with authority in general. He warns an officer from the Intelligence Bureau (who’s still trying to win over a classical music aficionado by faking love for Tchaikovsky) that he can make Indian agencies look bad by succeeding, after which the officer promptly becomes his mouth-piece to the White House, a place that resembles a Zero Dark Thirty roleplay session. The only moment of curiosity features Aliya breaking down on a boat after danger has been averted (the baddies are sitting around and muttering “Kamath won this battle”) – it’s then that the magnitude of her trauma hits her in waves. “It was hell,” she whispers, only for the series to culminate with two of her doing a passport swap at the airport. It was hell, indeed. We have two swappable reviews of The Freelancer to prove that.