ISIS Disney+ Hotstar Series ‘The Freelancer’ Creator Talks Challenges

Indian filmmaker Neeraj Pandey’s latest effort is Disney+ Hotstar India’s explosive new series “The Freelancer,” an “incisive look” at the world of Islamic State (aka ISIS).

The thriller series, based on the bestselling 2017 book “A Ticket to Syria” by Shirish Thorat, is produced by Friday Storytellers and directed by Bhav Dhulia (Netflix’s “Khakee: The Bihar Chapter,” created by Pandey). It follows the rescue operation of a young girl held against her will in war-torn Syria. 

Pandey, who previously worked with the streamer on the action-packed Special Ops franchise, specializes in the action-crime-thriller genre and has past roles ranging from screenwriter to producer and director. His filmography includes “A Wednesday,” “Baby,” “Naam Shabana” and “Special 26,” and also has hit sports biopic “M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story” to his credit. On “The Freelancer” he is credited as writer.

“There were so many things that Shirish had not mentioned in the book, but when he started sharing those things, it became evident that when we were to adapt for the screen, we had to integrate those bits. And actually, those are the bits that elevate the whole story,” Pandey told Variety.

On the decision to adapt the book as a series rather than a film, Pandey said, “It [the book] was a very incisive look at that world. And which meant that we had to spend more time with the characters and were invested in the story, which would mean that, ultimately, six hours would be the best [format], to tell this particular story.”

The big-budget project, a “mammoth production,” as Pandey describes it, shot in Morocco, standing in for Syria, at the height of the pandemic, with a team of actors and technicians from around the world. “It was a huge challenge to get all of them together, considering what the world was going through,” Pandey said. “To recreate in Syria in Morocco, that was a huge challenge, we practically had to rent out an entire village.”

The production was cognizant of the political considerations of the sensitive subject matter. “It falls under the purview of your responsibilities as a storyteller, to be clear and careful about what you’re talking. That doesn’t mean that you’re compromising on the storytelling or the content,” Pandey said. “But you have to be careful that you show it in the right manner. And that has become the norm now for anything that you do today, that goes for every particular genre. You have to be sensitive to the fact that it is catering to a mass audience.”

If the audience feedback is good, “The Freelancer” will become a franchise, Pandey said. Next up for Pandey is “Auron Mein Kahan Dum Tha,” a romantic drama film spanning 20 years starring Ajay Devgn, Tabu and Jimmy Shergill. The next seasons of the Khakee and Special Ops franchises are being written.

“The Freelancer,” starring Mohit Raina, Anupam Kher and Kashmira Pardeshi, streams from Sept. 1.

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