“Special 26.”… Heist stakes

Based on the two movies he’s made so far, Neeraj Pandey seems to have zeroed in on a niche – spicing up Hollywood genres with based-on-true-events-in-India twists. If A Wednesday! was an update on the catch-the-bomber thriller, Special 26 is a variation on the cat-and-mouse heist movie mounted on a number of rugs just waiting to be pulled. The key to Pandey’s films is the emphasis on a quiet kind of realism. A superbly realised chase on the streets is rendered not through gravity-defying wire-fu, but as one ordinary man chasing another ordinary man through a series of perfectly ordinary obstacles. They’re both winded by the end, as they should be. But this lack of showiness doesn’t preclude a series of preposterous story turns. Early on, during a raid at a corrupt minister’s house, Pandey teases us with sly misdirection – as when a stern character demands, “Danda kahaan hai mera?”, or when his aide remarks, “Asli kaam to yeh log kar rahen hain.” Thinking back, we can only laugh at how we’ve been had.

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The pre-interval portion of Special 26 crackles with amoral glee, and Pandey clues us in to the thrill of the con. We root for the bad guys, who think on their feet because they know how the other crooks think. The sheer ballsiness of the set pieces is exhilarating. And later we see, through a superbly staged phone-tapping scene, how similar the methods of cops are to those of criminals. Even when a straight-arrow officer (Manoj Bajpai) reminds his superior of a long-pending promotion, he laces the request with a bluff: “Rishwat lena shuru karoon kya?” Who’ll blink first? These characters are deftly drawn, without too much fuss – a henpecked husband, a man of a certain age who just can’t stop procreating, a father who wants his son to call him abba instead of dad. That’s all we need to know about them, and that’s why the disproportionate emphasis on the protagonist’s personal life begins to weigh down the proceedings.

Akshay Kumar, in one of his finest outings (so okay, there’s not all that much to choose from), plays Ajay, and we meet him, early on, when he raids that minister’s house with his partner PK Sharma (Anupam Kher, who’s outstanding, as is Jimmy Shergill, playing a humiliated cop). Ajay’s relationship with Sharma – superior and subordinate; cautious older sibling and brash younger brother – is enough to colour his character, but due to the inevitable compulsions of a love track, we have Ajay in love with the girl next door (Kajal Aggarwal; A Wednesday!, I suppose, could dispense with a romantic angle because it didn’t feature such a high-wattage leading man.)  The songs and the couple’s unsurprising scenes together cut into the film’s pace, and the second half doesn’t explode the way it should. This section is also hampered by needless drama, as when we’re given insights into the desperate lives of those being conned. The stab at complexity, at making us realise that cons come at a cost, is admirable – but it needed to have been better developed or jettisoned altogether.

But viewers who grew up in the 1980s, the era the film is set in,  won’t mind, because the occasional slackening  of the plot is compensated for by the rampant nostalgia. It isn’t just that the love angle plays out like something from those times – all signals and shy glances and strategically placed messages – it’s also the props and the paraphernalia. The Lijjat papad jingle. Godrej typewriters. A Nagina hoarding. A Lamby scooter. Thril cola. The Liril ad with Karen Lunel. The Illustrated Weekly of India. Even Rajinikanth, though the dialogue referenced (“Naan oru thadava sonna nooru thadava sonna madhiri”) was about a decade away. It’s a sweet dip into a past that seems a millennium ago. Given the aggressive audience-baiting that Akshay Kumar is usually known for, whether in action or comedy, we seem to be seeing – after this film and OMG: Oh My God! – a new avatar, a change of tack. One can only hope the rug won’t be pulled from under this expectation.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

32 thoughts on ““Special 26.”… Heist stakes

  1. Although Akshay Kumar is nominally the hero of this film, I think the thing that makes his performance so much better is that he doesn’t have to carry it on his shoulders. He has all these wonderful character actors around him, Anupam Kher especially (and God, what fine form he is in), and that allows him to focus on doing just a few things and doing them right.

    But like you said, the one thing I wish he didn’t have to do was fall in love. And Kajal Aggarwal didn’t help — her performance was a bit too flat for my taste. I would’ve loved to see what someone like Huma Qureshi could do with a role like that — not very well fleshed-out or meaningful on paper, but crying out for a good performance to elevate it.

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  2. This is an insidious masala (100 crore blockbuster category) film. Just look at its treatment – the camera movements, the slapstick humour, the editing, the unnecessary romance track, the Punjabi dance number, the infinite slow motion sequences, the hero-giri of Akshay Kumar (he is not only the leader of the gang, but ‘moral’ too when he returns Manoj’s 100 rupees) etc. Cleverly disguised as a smart film, which also it isn’t. I was conned successfully. Well done, Mr. Neeraj Pandey. You’ve ensured I’ll never watch your films ever again.

    Also a reminder not to trust twitter too much. Everybody had nothing but raves for this film.

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  3. Nidhi: Oh come on. Not even the first half? Sheesh, what a grouch :-)

    As for the return of the Rs. 100, where you saw something “moral” I just saw cheek :-)

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  4. A major chunk of the movie was filled with shots of people hurriedly getting out of cars, entering and exiting buildings, climbing stairs, riding scooters, walking on the streets, and so on. The placement of products from yesteryear was nostalgia-inducing, but seemed too methodical/in-your-face….. I am thinking about: that first phone call Ajay makes to PK Sharma, and we see a bright red shaving creme (mis-)placed right behind him on a window… an in-flight magazine held at a certain height and angle so that the audience don’t miss it… also, did everyone just drive old/used cars back then? I know that it must have been tough to find those extinct car models, but then why the continual insistence on showcasing parked/moving vehicles in every other outdoor scene?

    Almost every scene was unnecessarily long, and there were so many extraneous shots (of people getting out of cars…yada yada yada) Not sure if we can blame this on the editor though…. I think the director has a fetish for these types of shots. :)

    I think this could have been a good 1.5 hour movie.

    PS: Does anyone know the meaning of the word ‘tasve’? Not sure if I remembered this (Punjabi?) word correctly, but AK says something like “Aapke tasve khule hai.” to Divya Dutta in the very first scene in which they are together. I assume it means shoelaces…..?

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  5. BR, Akshay specifically mentions it in his telegram that he doesn’t want Manoj’s ‘imaandaar’ money. Seriously! Hindi films think audience can’t handle bad-guy heroes which, considering the crowd I saw the film with, is a valid point. [Not lazy stereotyping at all, they laughed at every line of the new Chashme Buddoor trailer] What else explains AK’s back story when he was rejected by the CBI?

    The only time the film threw me for a loop (in a pleasant way) was when AK starts talking in Bengali to the real official at the scene of their second con. Having lived in Kolkata, I know how affable Bengalis can be, especially when spoken to in their language. Otherwise, there is no flavour to the film, the characters aren’t interesting (full credit to Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpai for fashioning something interesting out of placeholder roles .. bumbling con man and tough CBI guy)

    Oh, there is also the guy in Lord Shiva costume & paint job at the CBI office whom we see only in passing (probably heading to a parallel, infinitely more interesting film)

    Otherwise it was all very by-the-numbers.

    P.S Whoever thought of using tacky CGI-created Marine Drive is some kind of mad genius.

    P.P.S Worth mentioning that I grew up in the 90s :D

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  6. @Nikhil I can’t stand masala films and film-making (I’m from Hyderabad.. I’ve had enough of those sort of films for one lifetime). So I really don’t appreciate a film that lured me in pretending to be smart but treated me like 100 crore audience anyway. :D Does it make sense?

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  7. HUGE SPOILER ALERT:

    Why did they need to drag in the real CBI for the heist? I didn’t get the logic (surely it could have been done without the real CBI’s involvement?).
    All I could think of was that Manoj Bajpai’s career in the CBI was finished because of this.

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  8. Can’t agree with you more Mr Rangan about the love aspect. I enjoy Neeraj’s wednesday even if I watch it twice a day. There were no songs, love scenes etc which made the film shorter and taut.

    But here, the whole love plot was unnecessary. In fact, the first 10-15 minutes after interval were just torture for me! If we cut the love plot itself, this would have been another perfect movie for me. Kajal agarwal’s accent at times, and the graphic images at the riverside made me cringe everytime. But still I enjoyed the movie nevertheless.

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  9. @Nidhi: Er,,, the film never gave me the impression that it was a “smart” film. Nothing about the trailer – the flashing lights, the dramatic captions, the one-liners and zingers – gave me the impression that this was anything other than an elevated (or at least containing an attempt at elevation) masala film. And the film just about fulfilled those expectations.

    To be honest, this film was tended to remind me of the more kitsch elements in A Wednesday, such as Jimmy Shergil’s blatant “hero-giri” and so on.

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  10. Well Nidhi, I thought the dialogues were smart. The “Rishwat lena shuru karoon kya?” line was hilarious, I thought. I didn’t really get the masala fim vibe. I guess films work or don’t work for people in peculiar ways. I was hooked right at the start, and when that happens, perhaps you end up overlooking flaws the rest of the way.

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  11. Nihil R: ” I was hooked right at the start, and when that happens, perhaps you end up overlooking flaws the rest of the way.” – golden words :-)

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  12. @Aurora Vampiris Disingenuous trailers i.e. films that dumb down their trailers aren’t an uncommon thing in Bollywood. All the promotions and initial reviews said the same thing – that this is a smart film. I admit the film isn’t responsible for how the critics perceive it but all that weighed in on my decision.
    @Nikhil R Yeah, it happens to me too. As much as I dislike Ayn Rand, there is some truth in her quote “Man is not a rational creature but a rationalizing one”.
    By the time Manoj Bajpai said that, I’d already crossed over to the other side :D

    (Note to BR : Please don’t publish the prev comment.. I’d posted it by mistake)

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  13. Hi BR: This also happened with me with another film that I re-watched recently. I absolutely loved “Up in the air” when I watched it the first time. Even now, I like it very, very much. But the yuckiness and indeed gratuitousness of the Bingham character’s outlook change struck me only on later viewings. I remember you mentioning your disappointment with the latter parts of the film in your blog. At the time I remember thinking – “Wow, that’s nitpicking!”, but now I see what you mean.

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  14. Watched this movie a couple of days back – have been starved of watching movies in theatres for the last 2.5 years and my last movie before this one in a hall was Jab Tak Hai…, which I was dragged to kicking and screaming! So both these may be reasons why but I really liked the movie – the only thing I wished I had was a remote control so that I cd forward instantaneously as soon as Kajal Agarwal (do you call actresses in roles people like that “heroines”?) came onto the screen. And I thought those glimpses into the personal lives of those “special CBI recruitment” were quite funny I thought – and I think the director also probably intended them that way and not as something for us to feel sorry about. Just harking back to the “No Vacancy” signs that all graduate “heroes” had to face routinely in movies of the 70s and 80s. Good fun! A part of me felt that it was a case of the director now having a bigger budget to spend and therefore deciding to spend on some unnecessary songs (and dance). But I must thank the director for making a movie based in India and “resident” Indians and not having to go abroad for good visuals.

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  15. Spoiler alert:
    Meenakshi- i think they bring in the real CBI to do their work for them (considering that it wud be really difficult to loot a store in broad daylight where the risk of sumone reporting in the press is quite high). Moreover, there is also the cheek of conning the CBI itself.

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  16. *SPOILERS*

    Maybe it’s an effect of watching too many American sitcoms that have made fun of every formula genre ever invented… but the moment a heist seems to go loose you start thinking about how they are going to explain later that it was all part of the plan. And the obvious flaws in the movie might have been easier to ignore if they had given at least a half-clever explanation. I mean, why involve CBI and put yourself on the map in the first place? They were going nicely under the radar, why the whole shenanigan of taking CBI for a ride?

    But on second thoughts, the movie never quite came across as clever enough to demand such questions. Just pick the amusing moments (like Anupam Kher finally breaking his character after the first scene), and move on…

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  17. I too don’t get the necessity of real CBI’s involvement. The jeweler looked trusting enough – some members of Akshay’s gang could have easily posed as “real” CBI to get the jewels to one place.

    Is it only the thrill, the cheek of conning real CBI itself, then?

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  18. AJ / Chaitanya: That was just a thrill-seeking moment — sticking your head into the lion’s mouth sort of thing, and also to show how Akshay could think on his feet and handle any situation. I enjoyed that moment very much.

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  19. @brangan – I guess I can (grudgingly) accept that it was only thrill-seeking. Because this was an “intelligent” movie, I was watching it with attention. I did enjoy it till the climatic scene, and it stopped making sense for me when the big reveal came. :-|

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  20. ***SPOILERS****
    I think there was more to it than just “thrill-seeking”. It seemed to me like the whole CBI involvement was planned as it was a necessity. There is a line that Manoj Bajpai gives to the jeweller to the effect that all the jewellery in the shop had to be packed up and sent to the godown in under thirty minutes, and when the jeweller protests saying it’s difficult, Manoj Bajpai says that the thieves plan to do just that and so he should make sure he does it. For me, that was the crux. The CBI was brought in to pack up all the jewellery from everywhere in the shop (even with the jeweller voluntarily pulling stuff out from where an “investigating officer” would have to spend time searching) and send it one place from where it could be picked up by Akshay Kumar and team with the least hassle. After all, they were only 4 people and hiring 26 people who were “trained” over a period of one morning could never assure the efficient execution of an operation like that.

    Also, if the collection of the jewellery took more than 30 minutes or whatever, it would be of no consequence because it was the CBI itself that was taking the time.

    On a side note, Brangan, this is the first time I’m commenting on your blog. But I am a long time reader and you can add me to the long list of admirers of your work!

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  21. I guess the movie didn’t work for me as much as it seems to have for quite a few people.

    Throughout the movie, the amateurish direction, over-loud music kept making my friend mention that the movie wasn’t just SET in the 80s, but SHOT like one as well. So bad it felt.

    The entire “twist” just didn’t hold up on revisiting the plot. Felt very “Abbas-Mustan”-ish.

    The absolute nadir was the dupatta scene! What were they thinking! Gah!

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  22. ****SPOILERS
    I think the end was truly meant for the Mumbai audiences or the audiences who knew about the real con that took place in Bombay where TBZ the jewellery store was looted by these con men. So the audience that goes to watch a film that already knows the end is taken by surprise that it wasnt factually based on it. I think thats why this script had to make way for the real CBI guys.
    I guess thats what arjunpannu was trying to say – that Neeraj Pandey had this end in mind and then weaved the whole story.

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  23. Did you notice the rather impromptu dancing in the Punjabi song. In their attempt to make it look natural and real, all dancers were doing their own thing and only where his dream takes over does the choreography get synchronized. But also felt that there was an overdose of CBI in the movie. Whatever happened to the local cops? Wouldn’t they intimate the cops of the states the heist occurs?

    Stellar performances by Anupam (oh, the scene where manoj and lot come to question him the day before the heist…fantastic), Manoj Bajpai, Jimmy Shergill and Akshay. Divya Dutta was wasted. That woman should get her due one of these days.

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  24. After the Kadal analysis, a friend and I talked between ourselves that now that Mani sir has stopped spoon feeding us, Rangan has started it.

    I am glad we aren’t going to be treated to the same in every review ;)

    I was disappointed with the CGI and the love track but otherwise found it a very fulfilling film.

    The disappointed made me write :”There is some CGI which is so bad that they’d make people like Peter Jackson, James Cameron cringe in disbelief.”

    I might have gone a bit overboard but oh well, once I started I thought why not? :D

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  25. I was wondering why Neeraj Pandey made such a flaccid selfindulgent film this time, usually the first one has all the nods to commerical imperatives, not the one that follows a successful debut. Ah well, needs must I guess, if a hero-type is hired. The main thing that kept me going was the nostalgia factor – I recalled the tehelka in Bombay when the original Ajay or whoever it was pulled off the Tribhuvandas heist in broad daylight, and how there was a collective sense of schadenfreude when he got away with his loot. He left his new recruits at the shop, as I recall. I rather enjoyed how the writers took that incident and twisted it around, wove in a backstory and suchlike. Like Kahani, this too had elements of Usual Suspects in it, no?

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  26. Saw the film last night. the 80s period was not flawlessly shown. Neeraj slipped up in all scenes showing the trains. The Blue-White color of coaches and the WDP-4 diesel engine does not belong to 1980s. But that’s pretty much the nit-picking. Quite an entertaining movie.

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