Neeraj Pandey is known to give audiences out-of-the-box stories surrounding the Indian intelligence agencies that safeguard national security. Two seasons of Special Ops, Baby, and A Wednesday, are among the riveting works of Neeraj Pandey. With The Freelancer, he dives into the lives of mercenaries, especially from India, who end up having to do contract work for organizations and countries around the world. Adapted from Shirish Thorat’s novel “A Ticket to Syria,” the Disney+ Hotstar special has released four episodes so far which revolves around an ex-cop turned mercenary who takes it upon himself to extract a young woman from Syria.
Avinash Kamath, an ex-Mumbai Police officer turned mercenary, is back in the city after hearing the news of his friend Inayat Khan’s demise. Inayat Khan, an ex-cop himself, was killed outside the American embassy as he forcefully crossed the barricades. The unusual way in which he committed suicide alerted the CIA and Intelligence Bureau, and they began investigating his past. Avinash was close to his family until nine years ago, when he moved away to train and carry out ‘extraordinary renditions’. He comes back only to realize the horror Inayat and his wife Sabeena went through to contact their newlywed daughter Aliya Khan. Aliya’s abduction to Islamic State-controlled Syria triggers Avinash to take matters into his own hands after he comes to know that none of the government officials helped Inayat and Sabeena. Avinash’s quest to locate Aliya forms the crux of The Freelancer.
The start of the show is interesting and keeps the audience hooked on the narrative. The writer and the director make sure to get control over the narrative by establishing who Avinash is and what exactly his job entails. The Hindi dubbed English dialogues in the first episode are a bit tacky, but somehow, that was not an issue in the later part of the show. Thankfully, we did not get to know Avinash’s job profile in one exposition dump. The maker showcases Avinash’s persona through flashback sequences and two people narrating his successful missions as a mercenary. This is a rather clever way to structure a screenplay. An essential ingredient of any action thriller is the engagement factor. The first four episodes had few action scenes, but despite that, the screenplay allowed us to get hooked on it.
The writer could have easily taken the jingoistic route and mansplained all over the screenplay, but this is not the case here. The Freelancer talks very pragmatically about how radicalization happens, and most of the time, people around you will not be able to sense the transformation that has taken place within the family. It is hard-hitting, disturbing, and thankfully not exaggerated. This is the kind of storytelling that was expected from The Kerala Story, but sadly, the makers of that film were more interested in making ultranationalist noise instead of telling the actual story behind women being taken to the Islamic State without their consent.
The narrative did not go over the top, with Muslim characters having to defend themselves by being preachy about secularism. The Freelancer has elements of Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk. The neat division between radicals and liberals is presented using subtle dialogue. It is refreshing to see the politics of religious radicalization in the show being portrayed realistically. Kudos to the writers for taking a different route. At one point, the protagonist also claims that he does not care about the politics behind the Islamic State. He aims to get his friend’s daughter back alive. The pacing of the show so far is excellent and does not deviate much from the main plot.
The direction by Bhav Dhulia is equally excellent. There is no dramatization of the horrors that men and women go through in the Islamic State. A lot of fear is instilled by portraying how normal life is for those who willingly join the terrorist state. Bhav Dhulia has done a tremendous job of keeping the narrative intact until the end of the four episodes. The production design and the detailing to recreate a remote Middle Eastern town are excellent. We assume a big chunk of the show has been shot on location, and the makers have utilized the landscape quite well.
One of the few drawbacks of The Freelancer is the character of Dr. Arif Khan. His background, his job, and his overall importance are not explained in the show. His connection with Avinash Kamath mirrors Russell Crowe’s relationship with Leonardo Di Caprio in Body of Lies. Dr. Khan is crucial for the show, but the shallowness of his character makes The Freelancer half-empty. What is his background, and why do Indian intelligence agencies consider him an asset? These questions are not answered. Dr. Khan’s explanation of the Islamic State’s formation comes across more like a monologue than a conversation between two colleagues. The placement of that scene is awkward. Avinash Kamath’s cliched back story involving a tragic incident with his wife and child does not create an impact. A hero who has led a sad life before going through a transformation is a done-and-dusted trope.
The cinematography team has done some excellent work to portray the urgency that is required to take the narrative forward. There are brilliant shots of the endless barren lands of remote Syria that inspire fear. The run time of each episode is roughly one hour, but the smooth editing will make us watch the entire show in one sitting. The fourth episode ends on a brilliant cliffhanger. This creates excitement for the remaining three episodes in the series.
The performances in The Freelancer are another feather in the hat for the makers. Ayesha Raza Mirza as Sabeena Khan is excellent as the grieving wife and a desperate mother. Kashmira Pardeshi, as Aliya Khan, evokes the terror of being stuck in a faraway land just through her eyes. We expect her to be excellent in the next three episodes as well.
Casting Balaji Gauri is a brilliant choice. Her ability to suck you into her belief system as Farhat Khala is scary. She is a scene-stealer. Anupam Kher’s character as Dr. Arif Khan is generic. We feel the directors could not get much out of him in these four episodes. Hopefully, he will have some meaty character growth in the next half of the show. Mohit Raina who plays the role of Avinash Kamath, is average throughout. We wish he was given a chance to emote because, in most parts of the show, he has the same expression. The reason why Avinash is called The Freelancer is explained well.
Hopefully, the next three episodes will be released soon so that the show does not lose momentum. The Freelancer is a well-paced thriller that you must watch despite its obvious hitches.