The Freelancer Series Review: An Action Thriller With No Thrills and Little Action
Director: Bhav Dhulia
Writers: Ritesh Shah, Benazir Ali Fida
Cast: Mohit Raina, Kashmira Pardeshi, Sushant Singh, Anupam Kher, Navneet Malik, Manjari Fadnnis, Ayesha Raza Mishra
Streaming On: Disney+ Hotstar
I remember being excited about what Mohit Raina would do next, after Mumbai Diaries 26/11 (2021). He was so impressive as a bandana-sporting maverick surgeon – a role that could have easily gone campy – that it felt like a new TV star had made a Barun Sobti-sized artistic leap. But it’s been a bit anticlimactic since that breakout performance.
After the wasteful Shiddat (2021) and the slight Ishq-e-Nadaan (2023), Raina is defiantly robotic in and as The Freelancer, another Neeraj Pandey-created show bristling with cultural stereotypes, problematic themes, dull action, deafening music, and many men walking fast and purposefully. Granted, the protagonist is an action hero – the kind that thrives on emotional inertia – but Raina is better than this. He is better than his role as an ex-alcoholic that orders a vodka-tonic at meetings to ‘test’ himself. He is better than his turn as an all-in-one trooper that enables the story to become an unnecessary hybrid of The Kerala Story (2023) and Gadar 2 (2023). Everyone is better than this. Before I digress and make a “reject this freelancer’s invoice” pun, let’s dive into the four-episode slog.
Another Trip to ISIS Territory
Based on the 2018 book A Ticket To Syria, The Freelancer features the latest mission of an ex-cop turned mercenary named Avinash. But it mainly features the circumstances of 21-year-old Aliya (Kashmira Pardeshi), a young woman who gets deceived and recruited into an ISIS-ruled Syrian town. Aliya marries into a radicalized family that tricks her into moving to the ‘Islamic headquarters’ with them under the pretext of religious tourism. The brainwashing is swift – a few Urdu-laced speeches by the local recruiter, but also a careless visual dissolve that caricatures the family’s journey from good Muslims (casual clothes) to bad Muslims (skullcap, hijab). Once she’s trapped in a hostile land that looks like a replica of the sets in the recent Akelli (2023), Avinash “Freelancer” Kamath decides to rescue her. It’s personal for him, because Aliya is the daughter of Avinash’s old friend and police partner Inayat Khan (Sushant Singh). How Avinash finds out about Aliya is its own cringey plot.
Apparently, Inayat has no way of contacting the globe-trotting mercenary (when a minister asks what a mercenary is, a cop uses the IPL foreign-player analogy – “specialists who only answer to money”), so Inayat does the least sensible thing: He fakes a terrorist attack in Mumbai and gets shot dead. Inayat’s logic is that the overzealous media coverage of his suicide will alert Avinash to his family crisis. Lest we forget, Avinash leads a chill life in Morocco, where he has admitted his wife (Manjari Fadnnis) into a psychiatric hospital after a tragedy. We know he’s hot property now, though, because the series opens with him kicking butt in Taliban-controlled Kabul on behalf of – wait for it – Israel’s Mossad. When someone poses the obvious question (come on, why does Mossad need help?), a half-hearted explanation about bypassing red-tape and diplomatic rules emerges. Whoever thought this economy was such a fine market for freelancers?
Where’s the Action?
Covert Islamophobia aside, The Freelancer is undone by some very clumsy storytelling. Even as an action series, it fails on multiple levels. It’s the sort of storytelling that tries to be cool and self-important, but the result is comical. The narrative keeps jumping from present-day to seven or eight years ago, back to Avinash’s pre-freelancing days as a disgruntled Mumbai cop in a corrupt system. Every time a new character or thread is mentioned, the series breaks into a pointless flashback, regardless of the mood and tone of the scene.
When Inayat’s wife (Ayesha Raza Mishra) tells Avinash about Aliya’s disappearance, for some reason we are subjected to musical images of Aliya’s love story. (I felt like yelling at the series like an embarrassed parent: Read the room!). When Avinash so much as breathes, we are parachuted into his past – his dysfunctional marriage, his drinking problem, his camaraderie with Inayat, his first elite mission where he saves his arrogant American colleague (he’s American the moment he says: “Watch and learn, boy!”). When Avinash tries to get the CIA as allies, there’s no flashback. Instead, the two agents turn to each other at the end of their chat and go: “Goddamn, we were like a couple of freshmen in front of him”. That’s how sharp freelancers are, okay?
There are other silly elements. Aliya manages to send text messages from Syria by spending her nights in the bathroom. Given the strict communication blackout there, her extremist husband is not a very smart cookie. In fact, most of them seem to be cosplaying in that town, what with all the fake beards and forced nastiness. Anupam Kher plays a Master-Shifu-like character named Dr. Khan, an ex-analyst who doubles up as a human encyclopedia for protege Avinash – he even operates out of Mumbai’s iconic Asiatic Library. At one point, the poker-faced Khan breaks the fourth wall while explaining the history of ISIS to Avinash, adorning his speech with lines like “Unlike the West, I’ll call them for what they are: The Islamic State”. At another point, he nurses a whiskey at home (not the library) while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, only for a shady Intelligence Bureau officer to arrive and offer an anecdote about how Swan Lake became a classic only after the composer’s death. When Khan asks him what his point is, the man bafflingly says: “My point is I’ll be back”. It makes no sense. It’s neither a threat, nor a metaphor.
Given that the series is far from over – the freelancer is yet to reach Syria and Aliya at the end of this season – I can’t say I’ll be back for the rest. At least not with the misplaced confidence of a man who intimidates a classical music aficionado with the guile of a Reddit troll.