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How is Special 26 a visceral and frequently surprising ride?

Writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s maiden film, A Wednesday, was a taut thriller that delivered a sharp comment on the nation’s frequent and bloody brushes with the spectre of terrorism; this film too glides by with such effortlessness that it leaves behind no unsightly footmarks.

Special 26, turns the spotlight, if only obliquely, on India’s collective and seemingly never-ending struggle to rid itself of the scourge of rampant corruption. Neeraj Pandey knows just what it takes to make a heist film, utilizing key requisite scenes such as the planning, and execution, tossing in surprises along the way to keep things fresh and engaging for the audience, never for once knowing just how each attempt would play out, at times for light comedy, but most times in admiration just how an escape strategy got formulated, with audacity.

“Inspired by true incidents”, the movie is set in the first few months of 1987, one of the final years of the long-entrenched licence-permit raj that allowed self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen to rob the people of the country at will and with impunity.

Special 26 deals with an era that is long gone. Yet the central issue that it raises is still as relevant as ever. The story runs smoothly with a consistently flowing narrative, which favours a warm, sepia visual scheme, traveling back and forth between January and February leading to the events in March and numerous cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur and Chandigarh but Pandey’s writing has its chronology so planned and in order, it’s neither confusing nor cumbersome to keep up, and the infusion of wry humor only helps to add to the delightful pleasures of its marvelous execution which can only be relished.

In the late 1980s, a group of four con-men dress up as fake CBI officers and conduct raids on corrupt ministers, and run off with millions before the unsuspecting ministers figure out that they have actually been robbed. Since the money involved in these raids is brought in by scams, no one dares to report this to the police. The group consists of Ajay (Akshay Kumar), the real brains behind the raids, the timid Sharmaji (Anupam Kher), Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) and Iqbal (Kishor Kadam). With no records or FIRs – the crisply dressed gentlemen escape after every heist with a clean (white) conscience and loads of black money.

While the group commits daring daylight robberies, the helpless CBI cannot do anything but look on. Finally, SI Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill), a disgraced police officer who had helped the felons in one of their raids oblivious to the fact that they’re actual robbers, agrees to help CBI officer Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpai) to track them down. Ajay and Sharmaji agree to commit one last robbery- their biggest- and then disappear. But unbeknownst to them, Khan is eavesdropping on their telephonic conversations and wants sufficient evidence to nab them. There is no hero or villain here: both Waseem and Ajay are common men simply going about their lives, each opting for his own methods. None of the main characters, let alone the minor ones, has detailed back stories that could help the audience grasp exactly where they are coming from. Yet each of them is generally interesting enough to be integral to the jigsaw that the film is.

Detailed production design is one of the finest attributes of this con caper: old currency notes, dial phones, cordless phones, hard-shell luggage, well-researched advertising placements (featuring almost forgotten beverages like Thrill) or discontinued magazines in their revived glory (Dharmyug, Illustrated Weekly of India). Even the wedding décor aesthetics are period-appropriate. There’s so much confidence at display here, it’s almost as though Pandey is challenging us to find flaws.  Neeraj Pandey is particularly adept at laying out his principal spaces and extracting dramatic value from them. The locations and settings play an important part in not only taking the story forward, but also in capturing the shifting moods of the different players.

The build-up is steady and the cat-and-mouse game that the real CBI men play with the fake ones assumes increasing urgency as the film hurtles towards the final flashpoint, an audacious sortie on a high-end jewellery store in Mumbai.

Besides the gripping climactic moments, the highlight of which is a surprise last-minute twist: the film has a superbly mounted chase scene in Delhi’s Connaught Place as Waseem and his men zero on a suspect.

Special 26 hinges on four pivotal performances, with Manoj Bajpayee’s star turn being the standout one: it is a classic demonstration of what a consummate actor can achieve when he is at complete ease with the material at his disposal. With an ingeniously layered role and a brilliant act, Anupam Kher truly ‘steals’ the show as well. Jimmy Shergill hits hard, with pure, unadulterated acting. Akshay Kumar is always in command, fiery and fantastic.

The director not only creates a sense of 1987 with props and products but the inhabitants of Special 26 delicately convey the idealism and morality associated with that period; what’s best here is of course the true meaning behind the title’s Special 26, where once it’s fully explained, will wrap up the brilliance of the entire caper, which proved to be that ace up Pandey’s sleeve, with a pace that never lets up, save for moments where he felt he had to balance the testosterone levels with the introduction of Kajal Aggarwal’s character Priya, serving as token romantic fodder for Ajay. The steady background score compliments the fast pace of the movie.

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