Special Ops is streaming on Hotstar.
National Award-winning filmmaker Neeraj Pandey has made his digital debut with Hotstar web series Special Ops. The eight-episode espionage drama stars Kay Kay Menon, Vinay Pathak, Divya Dutta, Karan Tacker, Saiyami Kher, Muzammil Ibrahim, Meher Vij, Vipul Gupta, Sana Khaan and Sharad Kelkar among others.
The Hotstar original will follow chief RAW analyst Himmat Singh’s (Menon) 19-year manhunt to nab the mastermind behind the most devastating terrorist attacks in India.
Known to helm projects inspired by true events, Neeraj Pandey has directed films like A Wednesday, Special 26, Baby, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Aiyaary, while producing movies like Naam Shabana and Toilet Ek Prem Katha, among more. In an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, Pandey opens up about venturing into the web space, challenges of making Special Ops, thriller as a genre and more.
Excerpts from the conversation:
At the launch of Special Ops, Star India head Gaurav Banerjee said you pitched this show ten years ago for Star Plus. What was it about the story that you waited so long?
It was not this show. I had pitched something else to him. That was also an equally ambitious project. At that point there was no Hotstar, so the conversation never materialised, just like he mentioned. When we met again for an opportunity to make something for the web, Special Ops fell into place.
While thriller has been your forte, tell us how did you develop Special Ops.
I stumbled upon something interesting a few years back, while working on one of my past projects. The premise was very exciting, and it stayed with me over the last few years, growing organically. When we decided to do something in the digital format, the story came back. We realised the medium would suit this particular script.
A large part of the series has been inspired by real-life incidents. Is it a way to make a stronger connection with the audience, given that they have knowledge about it?
(Pauses) Partly yes, but I have followed that all my life. Stories that are rooted in our lives appeal to me more. It was similar in this case also, as it is rooted in that particular incident.
What was the idea behind keeping a time span of 19 years for the manhunt?
As I told you, we have been waiting to tell this story for a long time. Also, we wanted to come back to the present day. So naturally, it had to have this different time span. It is finally the end of his quest, and so the duration came in pretty organic.
The series boasts of some fabulous actors. How challenging was it to get everyone together?
With the kind of work I have done in the past, it comes naturally to me. Also, I have always believed in strong ensembles. This one was no different, apart from the fact that it was not a two-hour film but quite a long schedule. To maintain all those tracks, writing and getting everyone together in that particular combination was quite a challenge. The scheduling was actually more difficult than getting those actors. Also, since everyone is working and caught up, we were actually fortunate that they could make time for us.
How different was it writing for a web series, given each episode has to end on a cliffhanger?
It was quite different because it was like working on different films in each episode. Every episode has a structure of a film in itself. The only thing is that you are not resolving the conflict, rather ending on a high for people to come back. But once you understand the format and what it expects from you, it becomes easier.
You are also the showrunner for Special Ops. It is quite a new term in the Indian context.
(Laughs) We have been doing this for years. We have been writing, directing and producing our films also. It is just a fancy term.
On the web, there is nothing like a box office to gauge your success. Does that in any way make a difference?
I will not lie that there is no pressure. I still want it to travel to maximum people. As for measuring, I think we do get feedback. Hotstar will also get to know how many people have watched it. And I am sure they will let us know (chuckles). Even when there’s no ticket window, you still want to make the best product that’s out there.
Everyone who is talking about Special Ops mentions its huge scale. How tough was it to handle such a big production?
That’s where Shivam Nair was a big help. Shivam earlier directed Naam Shabana, and he is the co-director of the series. Along with me, Shivam took care of the whole project from the inception. Be it the scripting, prepping - he was always there. Given that it was a long schedule, it could have got very taxing. The execution did take a lot, and having him around made it easier for me as the workload was divided.
In recent times, we have seen espionage dramas and thrillers being lapped by the audience. What according to you makes it a favourite?
I still don’t think it is foolproof. One has to have an effective story and tell it in the best possible way. That is how it works. It is not exactly the genre but the execution that is most important. Thrillers don’t really guarantee success or everyone would be only making that. The story and how you construct it will help you connect with the audience.
The political belief of filmmakers tends to influence their movies. Does that happen with you, or do you keep it separate?
I don’t think of it too much. I want to be professional and stay true to the story. I will do only things that are required for the script and wouldn’t like to mix anything else in it to make a point.
What can the audience expect from Special Ops?
I hope they enjoy the ride, which will be a little long (laughs). We have tried to stay true to the format. The story is about tenacity and going against all the odds. It will resonate with everyone.
Lastly, what’s happening on the film front?
We will start working on Chankaya by the end of the year. We are hoping to release it next year.
Special Ops is streaming on Hotstar.