Movies ...

Mohit Raina’s Indian mercenary saga has global appeal – Beyond Bollywood

Neeraj Pandey creates another intriguing action thriller after Special Ops series. Young Kashmira Pardeshi adds to her growing reputation.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3 / 5)

The Freelancer [2023]

Bollywood filmmaker Neeraj Pandey has turned a new chapter in his career when he floated Friday Storytellers, the digital arm of his production house Friday Filmworks. They got instant acclaim/success with Special Ops [2020]. A prequel titled Special Ops 1.5: The Himmat Story [2021] wouldn’t have been possible without season 1 doing well.

Acclaimed writer Ritesh Shah joins the Friday Storytellers bandwagon with an all-new story. The Freelancer [2023] is based on author Shirish Thorat’s book A Ticket to Syria: A Story About the ISIS in Maldives [2017].  Just reading basic info about the book suggests that Pandey and Ritesh Shah have tweaked few things, but the core remains untouched.

Former cop Avinash Kamath [Mohit Raina] receives a disturbing news about his friend Inayat Khan [Sushant Singh]. More worryingly, he is stunned to know that his daughter Aliya [Kashmira Pardeshi] isn’t to be traced from the time she got married and left Indian shores. There is absolutely no news about Aliya, her Malaysia-based husband Mohsin [Navneet Malik], and her in-laws.  Soon, Avinash learns that the family has duped Aliya and possibly taken her to ISIS-infested Syria.

Discarded, humiliated by the system eight years ago, Kamath has turned into The Freelancer – a mercenary living in the UK.  Kamath has a next-to-impossible task, a view that is also seconded by his friend-mentor Dr. Arif Khan [Anupam Kher].

Films/series on Indian bravado in terror infested foreign lands has taken shape over the years, but there are very few works that have global appeal.  Pandey’s Special Ops was acclaimed, but did it have global appeal? By global, it shouldn’t be limited to the diaspora. We haven’t watched Special Ops.  So, we can’t comment on its global appeal. We saw The Freelancer [2023], and can confidently say that this Vol 1. has potential to go beyond the desis the back home, and the diaspora.

Ideally, rescue-op tales ought to be pacy and perhaps more suited for theatrical audience.  In the four episodes of Vol 1, our hero hasn’t even landed in Iraq/Syria. What’s there in for the impatient viewer? Pandey and Shah simply set the stage for a ‘smash-and-grab’ Vol.2   That isn’t to say that the first four episodes lack engagement. 

Web series ought to follow its own template where there is ample scope for writers to flesh out characters, and adopt a detailed narrative. In a rescue-op thriller, it is only the present that counts. Pandey and Shah weave in the back stories of its principal characters – Avinash, Inayat.  The former’s troubled past is essential into the making of this Freelancer.

These things are common to any web-series, but where is the global potential in this story?  We have seen similar sagas before. SO, what is unique to The Freelancer?

The refreshing thing here is the acceptance of the grim situation and the understanding of global politics, intel, terrorism, particularly the one in Iraq and Syria. Thorat’s book earned praise for this. So, perhaps we have an adaptation that has largely stayed true to the spirit of the source. The strategized screenplay, foreign links give The Freelancer its global appeal.

The engagement level isn’t consistent in episode 1. The impatient action-thriller viewers may not quite warm up to the back stories, but its essence is vital to understanding the leading characters and the conflict(s) at hand. The professional back-story of Avinash and its corresponding present-day repercussions drag a bit, but the past personal woes of Avinash and his wife Mrunal [Manjari Fadnavis] are hard to miss.

We’ve seen an emotional Mohit Raina before, but an alcoholic, intimidating Mohit Raina does shake you.  There are three layers to Avinash here. One when he was Singham-like. Two, when the suspended cop took to alcohol. The freelancer Avinash is an altogether different being. Given the narrative of the four-episodes, there is little action here but Raina is mighty impressive in all three shades. 

Raina often charms us with his physicality. The actor though is not credited enough for his composure, which is vital for any mercenary. Avinash is a modicum of composure when he goes about probing in India.  The composure gives way to confidence when he communicates with CIA officials in Tangier Morocco. The popular acclaimed actor gives another stellar show.

Sarah-Jane Dias has come by leaps and bounds since her early days in Hindi cinema.  Be it The Freelancer, Made in Heaven or Inside Edge, maybe she reserves her best for web series. Dias plays the American desi CIA official in Tangier, Morocco.  Her flawless English makes her apt to play Radha Baxi. The lanky lass though also backs it with an intense performance. Expect more from Dias in Vol.2.

Kashmira Pardeshi

Young Kashmira Pardeshi has been rising through the ranks. We don’t recollect her name, but Pardeshi was impressive as Vidya Balan and Sanjay Kapoor’s daughter in Mission Mangal [2019]. She’s travelled South too. She still looks like a teen. Aliya though opted to marry early (21-23). Pardeshi looks even younger than that beneath that cherubic face, lies a fierce actor. Aliya doesn’t let her impetuosity weight her down. Pardeshi brings a steely resolve to her character. She, however, is mindful of all the dangers lurking around her. Aliya’s plight comes with a natural empathy but it is Pardeshi who truly draws you to the character.

Navneet Malik, Geeta Agrawal Sharma, who plays Mohsin’s mother Asar, are fairly impressive in their respective roles. It would be premature to say whether Sushant Singh has a cameo role. Any sane civilian can never be apologetic about terrorism. Neeraj Pandey shows fine sensitivity by not turning his series into any typical terror saga. Inayat Khan is a fascinating character. One wished for a little more conviction from Singh.

There’s no lack of intensity from Ayesha Raza Mishra, who plays Inayat’s wife – Sabeena Khan.  The family is tough, but even the toughest souls ought to show emotion in a tragedy. There was space for a little more mourning. Though no weak link per se, but Manjari Fadnavis’ performance is a few notches below her erstwhile colleagues. Phew, even veteran Anupam Kher, who can get carried away in such roles, controls his emotions.

The Freelancer is fairly impressive in its direction and backed by fine technical expertise – neat production design and background music.  An Indian bravado in ISIS den is becoming a norm, but The Freelancer stands out in the way that this Indian story/characters have fitted organically into the ISIS-evil designs.

Ritesh Shah, Pandey’s quality writing, the latter’s astute direction and the intense acts of Mohit Raina, Kashmira Pardeshi and Sara-Jane Dias will compell you to dial this Freelancer.

You may also like