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Neeraj Pandey's 'The Freelancer' promises another high-octane thrill ride

The Freelancer traces an Indian mercenary’s daredevil act during an extraction in dangerous territory. t2 chats with director Bhav Dhulia and actor Mohit Raina

Priyanka Roy  Published 29.08.23, 02:31 PM
Mohit Raina in The Freelancer, streaming on Disney+Hotstar from September 1

Mohit Raina in The Freelancer, streaming on Disney+Hotstar from September 1 The Telegraph

After the well-received Special Ops, Neeraj Pandey returns with another edge-of-the-seat, globetrotting series. The Freelancer, in which the film-maker functions as showrunner, tells the story of an Indian mercenary (played by Mohit Raina) and a daredevil extraction operation that is carried out by him in ISIS territory. The Disney+Hotstar show, streaming from September 1, is directed by Bhav Dhulia, who also helmed Pandey’s Khakee: The Bihar Chapter. t2 caught up for a video chat with Mohit and Bhav to know more.

Bhav, what was the chief idea behind making The Freelancer?


Bhav Dhulia: The intent was always to tell a story on a very big scale and in a region that we hadn’t really seen before. We wanted to tell a story with a lot of emotions, with a lot of connect. This is the first time that we will get to see an Indian mercenary, who is a private security agent, working in the Syrian region.

At a time when we have the Wagner Group (a Russian state-funded private military company), Blackwater (an American private military contractor) and other private military companies around the world, we examine what the role of an Indian mercenary outside is. Usually, we have a RAW or an IB operative, out of national duty, working in this area. The fact that we have an Indian mercenary is a unique factor.

Mohit Raina: This is a scale and a world that has not been explored in the Indian digital space the way we have done here. We haven’t really had an impactful extraction series and this has a race-against-time template where the mercenary needs to extract someone out of troubled waters. My character Avinash Kamath has been presented in a very different look.

What made you want to adapt Shirish Thorat’s A Ticket to Syria and how have you value-added to it?

Bhav: The process began two-three years ago, even before I came on board. Neeraj sir (Pandey, showrunner) came across this book and he was immediately taken in by the world. He contacted Shirish Thorat with the intention of exploring this world more. Neeraj sir brought Mohit on board as the protagonist even as the script was still taking shape. The script took about 1.5 years to come to its final form.

While I was shooting my other projects, we used to hear this rumour about this big project in development which was on a humongous scale. Then one day, Neeraj sir called me and told me about the world of The Freelancer. Ritesh Shah, along with Neeraj sir, shaped the script. They travelled to the Middle East as well as Turkey and the regions connected to ISIS. Shirish Thorat also had a lot of input.

We ended up recreating the region in Morocco. We took over the town of Marrakech there and recreated the entire region. We collaborated with European, Indian and Moroccan technicians. Our action director was from France, the weapons trainer was from Italy. We had actors from India, Morocco and the US and we managed to build quite an ensemble.

Mohit, what was your first reaction when you were told about playing the character of an Indian mercenary?

Mohit: When Neeraj sir told me about wanting to adapt the book, I was immediately on board and I told him that I would love to be a part of his vision. Things took a bit of time to develop because the pandemic happened in between.

When one works with someone like Neeraj Pandey, the advantage is that things are made crystal clear and easy for an actor. That’s because he knows what he wants. But on Day One, I did have a lot of trouble because I have never ever given more than four-five takes for a shot. In The Freelancer, there was a scene which needed 17-18 takes. I started sweating and thinking: ‘Am I doing something wrong?!’ I was really struggling. But I finally got it right. Those were the initial challenges for me... to understand this world, to understand Avinash Kamath. It took three-four days for me and after that, it was a cakewalk.

Bhav, how important is the human story aspect in an action-packed, edge-of-the-seat series like The Freelancer?

Bhav: It is extremely important. That is what makes a viewer connect to a series. Action is something that excites and entices, but the human connect is why an audience stays on.

In The Freelancer, we have the story of Avinash Kamath himself. There is an origin story of how this man became ‘the freelancer’ and outlines the turbulence and the struggles that he had to face. Then, we have the story of Aliya, played by Kashmira Pardesi. She’s a normal girl who falls in love and then gets entangled in a situation that she really can’t imagine. These are two parallel character arcs that move and culminate together. That is really the soul of the show, built around the great extravaganza.

Doesn’t making a show of such visual splendour for the web make it inevitable that many will watch it on their mobile phone screens and hence negate the maker’s larger-than-life vision?

Bhav: There are a lot of advantages as well as disadvantages with the OTT medium. The advantage, of course, is that one can tell a deeper, longer story and go into a lot of detail. Even though some people will watch it on their mobile phones, we are glad to be on a platform like Disney+Hotstar whose technical specifications are very strong. So there will be a level of consistency in terms of how the series will be projected. As a maker, I look at the positives and releasing on OTT gets us a wide audience, irrespective of what medium they wish to watch the series on. For a series like The Freelancer, OTT is the ideal platform for longevity and also because it’s a character-driven story.

Mohit, do you see any growth in you as an actor after being a part of this show?

Mohit: Absolutely! I had never played a character like this before, someone who has an arc where he has reformed himself, where he has had a second shot at life. Avinash Kamath was a cop in the Mumbai police and because of certain personal and professional setbacks, he goes into a dark phase. We then have the character of Mr Anupam Kher who reforms him and takes him under his wing to give him a new lease of life. So there is a proper growth of the character... a zero-to-hero kind of growth... and then he has to go back to his roots to rescue someone. This is a new kind of character for me whose arc really excited me. Just being a part of the spy world, which I have always loved watching, made it such a cool experience for me.

Which are your favourite films in the sub-genre of extraction films?

Bhav: Zero Dark Thirty and Munich.
Mohit: The Bourne films, Taken, and Argo are huge favourites. For The Freelancer, I had only Taken in mind. I had the Hindi version of “I will find you and I will kill you” playing in my head all the time! (Laughs) I never got the chance to use it, but that was the homework I did in my head.

Neeraj Pandey’s Special Ops is already a franchise with Special Ops 1.5: The Himmat Story exploring the origin story of Kay Kay Menon’s super spy Himmat Singh. Will The Freelancer, too, become a part of this larger spy universe?

Bhav: As of now, we have just put forward this material. But The Freelancer’s journey on its own is very interesting, specifically in terms of how private mercenaries operate in the context of today’s geopolitical situation. This story can be sustained over multiple seasons and storylines.
Mohit: Having said that, it won’t be a bad idea for Avinash Kamath and Himmat Singh to meet over coffee!

Which is your favourite watch in the ‘extraction’ genre? Tell

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