A vortex of stories stretches across time and place — Dhaka, Kashmir, Colombo, and Delhi — in the very first episode of Special Ops 1.5. In the second episode we have Moscow and London. Towards the fourth — and last — episode we have Kiev. For a show penned with such global ambitions, Special Ops 1.5 has a tepid if non-existent sense of space. You are telling me this is Kiev, it is probably Kiev, but it feels I am watching a cardboard cutout. What does it mean for a character to be in a new city? Do they dress differently? Walk a little unsure of themselves? More aware? Less confident?
The show begins with a question “Himmat Singh, Himmat Singh kaise bana?”. The life and times of Himmat Singh (Kay Kay Menon), a R&AW agent, is narrated by Abbas Sheikh (Vinay Pathak) an officer from Delhi Police, and Himmat’s co-conspirator. Intimate details of Himmat Singh’s life are unraveled by him in flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, though how Abbas Sheikh — bookending every other dialogue with ‘Janaab’ — has access to these moments where he wasn’t even present is not known or told, and is thus assumed to be one of the hand-waving conveniences of fictional storytelling. It just happened. Believe it.
You recognize the style from the first season. The camera fluidly tracking characters from behind as they walk into an empty space — an apartment, a mall — is a warning that an attack is going to take place. Or when the camera loosens itself, readying its joints for a 360 swerve, we know something big is going to be established, a revelation. There is a very predictable quality to the proceedings — when a villain gets a phone call and a bomb’s tick-tick-tick plays in the background you know the car will blow up when he picks it up, and when a character’s wife announces that she is pregnant, you know, his tick-tick-tick has begun.
It is this predictability that saddles Special Ops 1.5, though it is countered by its lenient run-time — 4 episodes, ranging from half hour to an hour. Perhaps they have learned the lesson from the bloated 8-hour long first season that set up more characters than it established with interiority and intent. But the relatively snappy sequel has the same issues — the characters, like the cities they toe around in, have cardboard like characteristics and depth. Where’s the life force? Himmat and his best friend Vijay (Aftab Shivdasani, mustached beyond recognition) are trying to find Maninder Singh (Adil Khan), an efficient and bold agent who defected and now has access to sensitive information. But why did he defect? This is a question that is briefly discussed with such a flitting montage — one of those flashbacks within flashbacks — that it did not register itself as a cause worthy of turning rogue on your own country. Himmat Singh postulates that it could be all of MICE — Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. But they set up the question itself with such loose conviction that a loose answer does not feel particularly disappointing.
A different kind of worry — the opposite of a bloated run time — is apparent. Do they have enough to say? Could the 4 episodes have made for a snappier film? Directed by Neeraj Pandey and Shivam Nair, written by Pandey, Deepak Kingrani, and Benazir Ali Fida, the show touted as a “limited series” has some sparkle — when one of the Russian honey traps goes hand to hand with Maninder Singh, it is action that suffuses the show with the otherwise paltry female presence. Even the scenes showing government officers being scrubbed dry by boredom in foreign lands, who open themselves up to honeytraps, has a nice existential touch. But everything — including what a honey trap is — is explained with a clarity that doesn’t allow for doubt or even thought. Everything you need to know is told to you. You needn’t lurk behind for meaning, messages, or subtext. Some glitter is thrown in — a whack, a line of humour, a cuss. But it is not nearly enough to hold a candle to its own expectations — a thrilling globe trotting espionage. It’s mere cardboard wanderlust we have here.