Thursday, February 14, 2013

Notes on Special 26

If you study its surface, Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26 seems like an urgent, busy film: there are abrupt cuts, split screens, swish pans and many tracking shots where the camera retreats in haste as groups of men stride purposefully towards it. Yet I thought it was oddly inert and slack in some ways, not as focussed as Pandey's debut A Wednesday, and a good half-hour longer than it needed to be. Some of this has to do with a larger cast of characters and increased deference to the commercial star system: for instance, the narrative shudders to a halt during a superfluous dance number at a wedding where Akshay Kumar gets to be the gyrating hero in a smart sherwani (here is an example of a sequence that is very energetic on its own terms, yet is slowing the film down). I don’t want to indulge in kneejerk criticism of Kumar’s casting, especially since he is good enough in this role – as Ajay, a conman who conducts fake CBI and income-tax raids along with three friends across the India of the late 1980s – but this may have been a tighter film if the lead character had been played by someone whose star persona and contract do not necessitate the inclusion of scenes where he walks towards the camera in slow motion, removing his glasses stylishly.

Even otherwise, Special 26 has a little too much exposition and some redundant sequences, such as a flashback that shows us fragments from a heist operation after we have already seen the whole thing earlier in the film. Or the late scene where Wasim (Manoj Bajpayee), a real CBI officer, comes to a realisation and showy camerawork is used to over-dramatise the moment to the point of tedium. (Having finally pieced together the details of a plot that had eluded him – which we knew about before he did – Wasim then relates the whole thing to a subordinate for good measure.) Even the idea of the nemesis, or of two strong characters pitting wits against each other – which is central to Pandey’s work so far – is overemphasised here. (Compare the delicate moment at the end of A Wednesday, where Anupam Kher’s police commissioner and Naseeruddin Shah’s aam aadmi meet very fleetingly, with the strained and self-conscious hotel-bar scene between Ajay and Wasim in this film.)

This is not to overlook the good things about the film, notable among which are its solid recreation of period detail (I think I can speak for my generation in lamenting that a movie set in 1987 can now officially be thought of as a “period film”, and that young viewers might turn wide-eyed at the sight of rotary-dial telephones and black-and-white TV). There are also fine performances from most of the leads, especially Bajpayee as the sharp, honest CBI man who is good at his job but also struggling with an inadequate salary (and with this whole tedious business of being contentedly middle-class: in one funny, telling scene, he deadpans “rishwat lena shuru kar doon, sir?” to his boss), and Jimmy Shergill who can imbue a small gesture – or a single word like “Janaab” – with significance. (Unfortunately the talented Divya Dutta is lost in a thankless, one-joke role.)


There has been a clear element of wish-fulfilment in both Pandey’s films so far. I remember A Wednesday drawing some flak on ideological grounds, for its apparent endorsement of the idea that it is okay for the Common Man to turn cold-bloodedly vigilante in special cases (such as when we conveniently know that undisputed criminals are about to slip through the legal system’s net). And it’s true that if you take the film at face value or as prescriptive, it can be seen as irresponsible, leading us down a very slippery moral slope. But what if one considers instead that fantasy – in many forms and degrees – is an important part of what makes life tolerable (at least for those of us who can make a basic distinction between the world as it is and as we would like it to be), and that for over a century movies have played the therapeutic function of letting people participate in pipe-dreams from a safe distance - whether it involves being able to eliminate Evil in one clean stroke or imagining, for a couple of hours in that dark hall, that the beautiful person on the screen belongs to us alone. A case can be made for viewing A Wednesday in those terms, rather than as a literal-minded call to anarchist justice. (I'm not saying that this is necessarily what Pandey intended, but based on a couple of his interviews when it came out, I got the impression that writing and making the film was a form of personal catharsis for him.)

In a similar way, it is possible to see Special 26 – for much of its duration – as a wish-fulfilling fantasy about “little people” forging their own path in an unjust, corrupt world. Having recently read Uday Prakash’s story “Mohandas”, in which a lower-caste man becomes a victim of identity theft and flounders while the upper-caste rogue who has stolen his name flourishes in a good job, I couldn’t help thinking that what Ajay and his gang do here – donning the identities of authority figures in order to loot corrupt people – is a sort of reversal of what happens in Prakash’s allegory. In other words the underprivileged are striking back, uncovering vast quantities of ill-gotten wealth hidden in a plush house (which, coincidentally, is similar to what happens in another Prakash story “The Walls of Delhi”). And the film does everything it can do to generate sympathy – or at least fondness – for the four conmen, all of whom are likable people in their own ways, and at least two of whom are leading hand-to-mouth lives.

But as it progresses, much of that sympathy is diluted. We see them robbing people who are not much better off than they are; what initially seemed like genuine attempts at character development soon make way for shortcuts and facile one-liners; by the time we learn that Ajay was a CBI aspirant who became bitter after failing the interview (and there is a picture-postcard, vaseline-coated shot of him sitting sadly in the rain), it’s hard to feel for the character unless you’re the most indiscriminating Akshay Kumar fan. And (Spoiler alert) I thought the final twist – where we learn that the foursome have perpetrated a double-con – was problematic in how it affects our attitude to the characters. Suddenly we have to start thinking of Ajay and cohorts as almost omniscient superheroes who will come out trumps no matter what, fashioning convoluted schemes for the thrill and challenge more than anything else; our view of the Anupam Kher character PK – who had latterly come across as a tired, nervous, scared old man on the horns of a personal dilemma – is especially altered; the film takes a right turn to become an Ocean’s Eleven-style movie where all that matters is getting the last laugh and coming out of a tricky situation without getting your hair mussed. I have nothing against that kind of heist film, but I got the impression early on that Special 26 was trying to be a more pointed social commentary with a feel for the complexities of the time and place it is set in. And given that assumption, it felt half-baked in the end.


  1. Agree with your review. I think Pandey needs to learn direction (I'm sounding ridiculous, but I genuinely feel so). The first scene, when he shows Aksay's and Jimmy's cars approaching towards each other is full of reduntant shots. One just needs to show two people starting their respective cars. The second shot can be of Connaught Place, where two cars are shown with some 1987 models to get period details right. The third shot can be when they eventually meet. While, what we had were some n numbers of poorly crafted shots with an extremely jarring background score. The film is full of such absolute lack of aesthetics. So was the case even with A Wednesday. And its tough to believe that on one hand, a director pays so much attention to period details, on the other, he has postcard cut images for those scenes you mentioned. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable film. On Bajpai's performance, a friend of mine said "Why is he looking like those Angry Birds?" :) I couldnt like his performance after this remark :) but then thats not a flaw

  2. I too thought that some sequences were absolutely redundant. In fact, I'm not sure I even liked the movie. The unnecessary romance angle didn't help either. And Pessimist Fool's comment made me laugh because he hit the nail right on the head with the angry birds reference; I was rather tickled at the perpetually intense look Manoj Bajpai sported throughout the movie.

  3. Talking of redundancy, "throughout" is redundant in the above sentence. Sigh. I have never been able to point fingers without incriminating myself...:D

  4. Yes, that Angry Birds comment is hilarious, and very accurate - wouldn't put it past someone like Bajpai to use those ill-tempered creatures as the guiding spirits for his performance!

    And Radhika, stop critiquing your own comments! It makes me very nervous and self-conscious, since I barely give my posts a once-over before publishing them these days.

  5. :D Occupational hazard. Btw, did anyone else feel really bad for the stutterer who thinks he's finally got his big break? I couldn't bring myself to laugh at the sequence when he's being questioned by Wasim in the climax, though everyone around me was in splits.

  6. I did not much for the movie. While both Wednesday and special 26 were probably good scripts (if you ignore the superfluous romantic angle), Neeraj Pandey seems to lack visual flair. I wish someone else directs his movies. Lost of the staging is very amateurish e.g. the shot where the leading lady alights from a taxi at the airport

  7. Though I think I liked the film more than you did, I agree with Pessimist Fool's comment above (something I had forgotten after the movie ended). Not just the first scene but for the first half hour the shots were indeed extremely redundant, the cars approaching each other, the frantic search of the Minister's house etc. Made me quite restless, ok what's happening, say it!

    Quite liked the film on the whole and I personally thought Akshay Kumar was very good in the role, probably his best since Khakee. (maybe not saying much but his filmography has turned that way). The love track was the dampener.

    And both this one and A Wednesday has a lot of walk and talk or just walking A LOT!.

  8. I liked the movie and I like your review as well. In movies of this kind, we generally try and find loopholes. I mean, as the audience, we try to figure out where we got fooled. Same happened to me in Kahaani and now, in Special 26. And yes, there are such moments. Today, a friend pointed out something which I want to share with you. In the opening scene, Akshay Kumar was narrating their upcoming expedition to Jimmy Shergil over the telephone, where he introduces himself as a CBI agent. The friend and I feel that it shouldn’t have been this way. The characters fool each other, NOT the audience. At the end of the movie, we find that Jimmy was a conman too and Akshay and he had a different conversation altogether. Jimmy knew that Akshay was a fake CBI person. The director should have kept the conversation at the beginning of the movie very subtle. What was the fake conversation all about? You can mislead the audience with tact but not fool them falsity.
    Also, the Kolkata window (with Howrah Bridge at a distance) and Bombay seaside looked terribly photoshoped.

  9. no mention of the fact that the heist was based on a real life unsolved robbery at Tribhuvandas Bhimji Zaveri?