To shave or not to shave... if you’re a Neeraj Pandey actor? In A Wednesday (2008), if I remember correctly, Jimmy Sheirgill doesn’t have a moustache; in Special 26 (2013), he does. In Baby (2015), Kay Kay Menon doesn’t have a moustache; in Special Ops (2020), he does. Menon is back in Special Ops 1.5: The Himmat Story, and guess what: the moustache is gone. Instead, it now sits on the big grinning face of Aftab Shivdasani.
Men and their moustaches are an abiding concern in Neeraj’s cinema. From Akshay Kumar to Manoj Bajpayee, everyone seems to have sported one in his movies. It is a sign of old machismo dragging on in the new world. In his new series—a prequel of sorts, co-directed with Shivam Nair—a young Himmat and an Indian naval officer negotiate across a door. The officer is bereft; he’s been honey-trapped by a Russian sparrow (there’s a whole speech explaining what that is) and disgraced for life. Seconds before blowing his brains out, he looks into the mirror and tugs his tash, as a final tribute to his masculinity before catching the bus.
This silly little scene serves to throw up a contrast. Manliness, for Himmat, is no trouble. He is a calm superspy—someone who gladly turns a phrase or two but does not flaunt unnecessarily. In the debut season, he ran covert operations from the confines of his desk. His coolness of mind—as charming as it can be infuriating—is carried over in this origins’ tale. Take, for instance, an early mission in Dhaka, where he barely leaves the car, and fires a weapon only when he needs to. Though he’s gone back in time, his personality has survived the jump. This makes the prequel a bit redundant: if we aren’t watching a character evolve, revealing old doubts, what are we watching then?
The short answer to that is scenery. Neeraj adores scale, his sagas are largely an excuse to trot globe. After a short intro, the series returns to the early 2000s. Three Indian nationals are separately duped on foreign soil. Himmat—bright-eyed, unemployed—is assigned a couple of leads. “Careful,” warns his friend and partner, Vijay (Aftab). “It’s getting complicated.” Oh, and personal too. Ever wondered how the shy and self-effacing Himmat Singh came to have a family? Now’s the chance to find out.
The success of Special Ops—the first season was so big, they announced a universe—is predicated on its leading man. Kay Kay Menon is an actor of craft. His brilliance, as always, lies in the way he dramatises the ordinary: simple phone conversations acquire an edge when Himmat is on the line. As a decorated spy leading a quiet private life, he’s a brother of The Family Man’s Srikant Tiwari, with one difference. Srikant, played by Manoj Bajpayee, has more than a few scruples in life. His patriotism doesn’t blind him to the exact nature of his job. It’s different for Himmat, who is as cold and resolute as some of the targets he chases.
At a lean four episodes, the series fails to pack a punch. It’s closer to one of those DLC expansions they release for video games—vast but inessential story packs marketed to fans. The story of Maninder (Adil Khan), an Indian soldier gone rogue, feels plucked from an action game. There are also a lot of repetitions and recaps. Twice, for example, we are told what M.I.C.E means: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. Only one of these, I suspect, will keep Special Ops going.
TV Show: Special Ops 1.5: The Himmat Story
Creator: Neeraj Pandey
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar