You would think the CBI doesn’t advertise walk-in interviews, and arrange banquet halls in five-star hotels to hold them. You would also think Akshay Kumar and Anupam Kher couldn’t possibly make convincing CBI men. Yet, in Neeraj Pandey’s hilarious thriller, Special 26, we’re taken on a ride from start to finish, with a superb twist in the end. We do sense at some point that not everything is going the way it should be, that there is a surprise waiting for us at the end, but the acting is so spot on and the red herrings scattered so skilfully that we’re caught unawares nevertheless.
The film takes us back to Republic Day, 1987, where Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Zail Singh are doing their rounds. The real footage dissolves beautifully into the grainy reception of an old black-and-white TV, the kind that may be installed in an ill-equipped government office. A phone call is made, an official government car and an official police jeep, sirens blaring, meet at Safdarjung, and an awed SI Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill) is told by a bossy Ajay Vardhan (Akshay Kumar) that they’re going to do a CBI raid on a minister’s house. A few minutes earlier, Vardhan had barked on the phone, “Even I don’t know where the raid is! Only Sharmaji (Anupam Kher) knows.”
What unfolds over the next two and a half hours is a gripping heist thriller, with twists that keep us wondering who’s good, who’s bad, and who’s undercover. One of the reasons the film is so entertaining is that we’re laughing al through, as it does away with cheap humour and takes clever digs at everything from desi English to government functioning. There is a certain quotient of slapstick humour, unavoidable when Akshay Kumar stars in a film, but that’s neatly balanced by ironic asides from Manoj Bajpayee and Anupam Kher.
The conflict in the film is a battle of wits between two groups — one led by Vardhan and Sharmaji, and one by Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) and Ranveer Singh. They lay traps for each other, taunt each other, and choreograph “accidental” meetings with each other. Though we don’t know much about who these characters are, and see very little of their families and personal lives, we see enough of their personalities to start liking them, and picking our favourites.
The only part of the story that doesn’t fit is a laboured romance involving a heaving-and-panting schoolteacher (Kajal Aggarwal), and Vardhan. The film does have a few other negatives, including an incomprehensible line in Tamil from Akshay Kumar, ostensibly to allow a Tamil man to shout, “Thalaivaa, neenga oru vaatti sonna, aayiram vaatti sonna maadiri!” One wishes the director hadn’t felt compelled to allow a nod to Akshay Kumar’s hero credentials, and kept the story cleaner. But even so, this is a better heist film than any I’ve seen this year, and not just from Bollywood.
The Verdict: As engaging for its plot as for its dialogue, this is a must-watch.