With the sole attraction of the debutant Neeraj Pandey's 'A Wednesday' being the inclusion of powerhouse performers like Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher, it was bound to pass by unnoticed, what with its extremely minimal promotion. Luck, however, favored this release. The film, through word-of-mouth, ended up reaping generous box-office dividends, besides receiving evidently high critical acclaim. Post the movie's success, the director suddenly disappeared. News was around that a prequel to his debut was in the works, but nothing more resurfaced, until the news of a certain 'Special 26' was out.
Honestly, though, this writer was skeptical of this movie's content and success for an obvious reason: the bigger the game, the more the risks. And producers wouldn't want the kind of risks in their films. This is when subplots rule over the original content, and things usually go awry. A prime example of such a case is the transition of Maneesh Sharma from 'Band Baaja Baaraat' to the highly stylized 'Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl'. However, with that little faith still remaining, this reviewer took cautious strides into the cinema hall.
March 18th 1987. An unnaturally open CBI Walk-In interview takes place. Rollback to where four officials take the help of the police to conduct an extensively shocking raid at a Minister's house. Black money is found, seized and taken away. As the cards are carefully laid on the table, we know that the CBI officials P. K. Sharma (Anupam Kher), Ajay Singh (Akshay Kumar) Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) and Iqbal (Kishor Kadam), are in fact, not who they seem to be at all. Unbeknownst to the four people, who (interestingly) go back to resume their mundane lives in different parts of the country, police Inspector Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill) and his assistant Shantiji (Divya Dutta) are suspended. Taking this to heart, Ranveer plans to hunt the team himself, and takes the support of the real CBI officer Wasim Khan (Manoj Bajpayee). Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of the real and the fake; a game where both the players up their ante. And Ranveer still has his scores to set.
Neeraj Pandey turns out to be one of the few auteurs in Hindi cinema alongside names like Imtiaz Ali, Habib Faisal and Anurag Kashyap. Pandey's narrative skills were evidently put up in his debut venture, and here too, he scores for the most part. There's a very linear fashion the screenplay goes in. However, there are some cards Pandey decides to play at just the right time; and this, exactly, is what works. The narrative, however, dips for two reasons:
The extended romantic track is a deterrent. Kajal Agarwal looks pretty and perfect for what she's doing, and the first interaction between Agarwal and Kumar is Pandey's masterstroke. What follows, however, doesn't go anywhere. If it was at all necessary to include this track, the director could have continued with the subtlety he started it off with.
The marriage song ('Gore Mukhde Te Zulfan Di Chaavan'). While the marriage embeds into the viewers' minds the closeness of the group, inclusion of any song in the proceedings ends up appearing too gratuitous in its attempt to look mass friendly.
These dips, however, can be ignored, thanks to the otherwise watertight screenwriting. Pandey proves his craft by breaking away from his only claim to fame ('A Wednesday') and coming back to the movies with equal passion.
Technically, the movie doesn't deter. Cinematography by the Late Bobby Singh ('Life In A... Metro', 'The Dirty Picture') is fantastic and doesn't allow for any deterrent in quality. Though some scenes have been shot simply (these scenes have been contextual to the film), there are others that bask in all their glory. Watch out for Kher's Sharmaji explaining the final heist, with cutaways in slow motion - an absolute masterstroke that couldn't have done without any help from the cinematographer and camera department. Ditto for the editing by Shree Narayan Singh ('A Wednesday', 'Gandhi to Hitler'), who keeps it simple, but offers us the split screen (which works big-time here), and the match cuts. It's this form of parallel editing that gives more sense to the preceding dialogue, in many places. Production design by Sunil Babu ('Iqbal', 'Lakshya') wins on extreme detailing, thereby fully supporting the director's vision. Music by M. M. Kreem is melodious, but act as unnecessary additions. Himesh Reshammiya's sole number is a huge roadblock. But where the music dips, the background score rules. Surandra Singh Sodhi ('Shaurya') gives us a crackling background score that lends the whole film a flavor.
With all the technicalities in place, and with the film now looking stronger than ever on paper, you've got to have the perfect performers, and here there are many, but worth mentioning on top rung are two very important names: Akshay Kumar and Manoj Bajpayee. Akshay Kumar's performance here is a 180-degree turn from his earlier, more recent outings like the 'Housefull' franchise and 'Khiladi 786'. Settling his rowdiness (pun intended), Kumar goes for subtle and calculated. He gets to ooze enough of star power nevertheless, with fantastic styling by Falguni Thakore. Ditto for Manoj Bajpayee, who competes head-on with Kumar, not just on-screen, but off-screen too. Having all the best dialogues, smirk in place, Bajpayee nails it once again after his success with 'Gangs of Wasseypur'.
Anupam Kher is brilliant. Right from his body language to his mannerisms, he comes off well as a guy with heart and a weakness to indulge. Rajesh Sharma and Kishore Kadam lend ample support. Jimmy Shergill wins with his restrained performance as a humiliated cop. Divya Dutta is cute and funny, and she delivers well as Shantiji. Kajal Agarwal is decent, though wasted however. Others are great.
Overall, with this year already starting off with movies like 'Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola' and 'Inkaar', this one takes the cake for making a hattrick in the second month already. With terrific writing, thoughtful execution and powerhouse performance, 'Special 26' turns out to be one of those rare heist thrillers that work for being original. With most heist thrillers in Hindi cinema taking cues from Hollywood classics and ripping them off, this one stands out for being that one movie that doesn't need any inspiration but the adaptation from real life. And not only does it unabashedly entertain; it works the viewers' brains too! With a slow-and-steady beginning, a strong middle and a winning climax, 'Special 26' becomes the viewer's instant favorite, and may even warrant second viewings!
In conclusion, 'Special 26' is bound to con the viewers' hearts with its "asli power" (real, raw power). Highly recommended!