P.S.: Although I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers, Special 26 is one of those films which works better if you enter the theater with no preconceived notions. So be warned!

One of the defining aspects of Neeraj Pandey’s films so far seems to be his usage of offhand shots/scenes to establish his characters. How else can you explain Naseeruddin Shah’s conversations on the phone with his wife in A Wednesday! which are perfunctory to the overall plot? They serve no purpose other than to reveal something about this character. Will the film lose anything without these phone conversations? Certainly not. But they add immeasurable value to the film and make everything feel alive. Pandey’s outstanding sophomore effort Special 26 is also littered with such scenes which have no consequence besides telling us something about each of his characters. Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) constantly touching his mother’s feet as a mark of respect, Iqbal (Kishor Kadam) addressing the mundane activities in his household and getting screamed at by his wife, and Sharmaji (Anupham Kher) getting his wife constantly pregnant, these are all examples of scenes which provide us with an insight into the lives these characters lead outside their acts of thievery.

This also explains the necessity of the romantic track featuring Kajal Aggarwal as Priya though it feels totally unnecessary at first. Besides the aforementioned three, you never get a sense of who the fourth person Ajay Singh (Akshay Kumar) is. He remains an enigma for much of the film. Pandey probably felt it was essential to give him a partner and a backstory that explains how he became a conman. Could it have been interwoven better into the screenplay? Yes. It does disturb the pacing of the film but not as much as the song sequences which are totally extraneous to what is essentially a thriller. A Wednesday! did away with them altogether and went on to become a huge hit, so their inclusion did surprise me. But those are the only negatives in what is otherwise a terrific film that provides thrills and laughs in equal measure. I was riveted!

What comes across in both A Wednesday! and Special 26 is how remarkably restrained Pandey is as a filmmaker. Take, for instance, the manner in which he employs stylistic shots. Slow-mos, split-screens, grainy shots, sepia tones, silhouettes, and black & white scenes, this film has them all. However, they’re never overused, and you get the sense that certain scenes wouldn’t have worked without these stylistic flourishes. This restraint is also evident in how he goes about setting the 1980s period using throwaway shots of magazine covers, bus stand roofs, and even film posters inside autorickshaws. Even the comedy is downplayed and interwoven with the thrills effectively and alleviates the pace of the film at just the perfect junctures. In fact, with the exception of the theme music which has a distinctly 80s vibe attached to it, there is something understated about his direction which is truly praiseworthy. Indeed, Pandey has only endeared himself more with Special 26. While you get the sense that most new filmmakers are content to get themselves into a certain comfort zone, both of Pandey’s films couldn’t be more different from each other. And though they’re from well-tread genres, there’s a level of attention to detail in both which is most definitely welcome in an Indian filmmaker.

And he has once again surrounded himself with a terrific cast. How refreshing is it to see Akshay Kumar in a down-to-earth role such as this one? We’ve gotten accustomed to seeing him bash up zillions of goons and dance around with girls in skimpy costumes that we often forget that he is a strong actor given the right role. Ajay is one such role which plays to his strengths, and his performance is understated and effective. Anupam Kher gets what must surely be one of his best roles in recent memory. As the veteran Sharmaji who’s getting too old for the game, he is absolutely sensational, be it intimidating a politician, inspiring a police officer, worrying about whether they might get caught or sharing a laugh with Akshay Kumar. Manoj Bajpayee makes his role work because of his sincerity while Jimmy Shergill is once again very impressive.

All of the above add many layers of detail to what is otherwise a relatively straightforward heist film, one which is supremely well-executed nevertheless. Once the above characters are well-established, the film is about whether Ajay, Sharmaji, and their gang can pull off one final heist before riding off into the sunset. Turning the screw on them in the second half are Ctiji (Manoj Bajpayee) and Ranveer (Jimmy Shergill), both on the right side of the law, the former a CBI agent and the latter, a police-officer who becomes a pawn in one of the gang’s cons. Here again, I couldn’t help but admire the manner in which Pandey diverted the audience’s attention. In particular, notice the proceedings in the background when Ranveer first visits the CBI office to file a complaint. Because of this sequence we never know whom to trust. Everybody is riddled with ambiguity and earnestness in equal measure. As the stakes get higher towards the end, you are certain that Ajay has an ace in the hole, but that you’re never sure what it is until Pandey reveals it to us is Special 26’s greatest success.


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