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.
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.
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