Monday, February 25, 2013

Heist in the time of the Licence-Permit Raj

(Published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on February 22, 2013, retrieved from

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Jimmy Sheirgill, and others
Director: Neeraj Pandey
Rating: 4 stars
It was a time when Ambassadors, Premier Padminis, Fiats and Bajaj scooters were the only private vehicles seen on the streets of India. Autos switched on their meters without argument, and returned change to customers. And to make sure the slightest thing moved, one had to bribe someone in government office. Set in 1987 India, Special 26 tells the story of a gang that conducted several successful heists, posing as the CBI, and Income Tax Department. And it makes us laugh almost throughout its two and a half hour duration by pitting a straightforward CBI officer (Manoj Bajpayee) and an earnest policeman (Jimmy Sheirgill) against a gang of conmen, led by Ajay Vardhan (Akshay Kumar) and P K Sharma (Anupam Kher).
We’re led into the film through the Republic Day Parade of January 26, 1987. Akshay Kumar makes a call, and hoarsely orders a cop to meet them at Safdarjung’s tomb. As he and Sharma set off, we see SI Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill) striding purposefully forward. Suddenly, he pauses, turns to a female subordinate, and asks for his lathi. The film is punctuated by such quirky moments, timed quite beautifully by its cast. In another scene, Ajay stops to leave his footwear outside, before entering a minister’s puja room and tearing it down in a search for hidden compartments.
Everything about the film rings true, from the obvious delight government officials take in cracking down on people who make far more in a day than they will in a year, to the authenticity of the setting. It can’t have been easy to shoot at Connaught Place, without capturing a single stray shot of the Delhi Metro. Yet, the only anachronism is a glass facade in the background. The cars are of the makes and colours of the Eighties, and there’s even a Nagina poster in a functional cinema.
We meet Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) when he’s running with his toddler hoisted on his shoulders, to the school bus. When the kid says, “Bye, dad!”, he chides, “Abbu bol.” He’s that sort of guy. The sort who’ll give his wife and up-and-down, frown at her cleavage and ask, “Where’s your dupatta?” The sort who’ll chase a criminal all over the place, at personal risk, till the guy falls off a building or is otherwise apprehended. The sort who’ll sit down a policeman who’s been conned, and grin, “Kya, janaab, aap ko buddhu bana gaya?”The sort who’ll tell his boss he hasn’t had an increment or promotion in years, and ask, seriously, “Rishwat lena shuru karoon?” He knows better than everyone else. You can’t fool him.
And his adversary is a man who grunts that the person who’s capable of defeating him hasn’t been born yet. The film’s treatment of its characters is pitch-perfect – even when it puts macho lines in their mouths, it appears to be laughing at those very lines. When Vardhan has misgivings about raiding a mantriji’s house, Sharma says, “Desh ke saamne mantri kaun hai?” In another instance, when Sharma breaks into bombast to worm his way out of a situation, Vardhan trips on him later.
Throughout, there are jibes at a government which shielded itself from outside influence, and failed to build its own infrastructure. When a man approaching retirement introduces his friends to his very large family, dressed in matching print, he defends his procreative impulse, saying the TV reception isn’t very good, and there’s nothing else one can do to keep oneself occupied.
The humour in the film is layered – sometimes, it comes through in subtle puns that are apparent to the audience, but not to the characters in this cat-and-mouse game. Sometimes, it’s in the dialogue, delivered masterfully by all the main actors. Sometimes, it’s in the human weaknesses we can relate to, and still mock. Sometimes, it’s in the absolute ridiculousness of a scene – like a man dressed as the Hindu god Shiva stomping through the CBI office.
There are downsides to the film. It is weighed down by a romance that never quite fits into the fabric of the film, it has a couple of dwarfs thrown in for comic effect, it brings in a sob story to justify a character going rogue, and it banks on coincidences and questions not asked. But so cleverly is the film crafted and so convincing are the actors’ performances that we’re able to overlook most of that, and deem the film paisa vasool.

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