Sunday, March 10, 2013

Special 26: Con Banega Karodpati

Special 26 has received rave reviews for being a good thriller. But not much is being said about the skewed sense of right and wrong that the film is unintentionally reinforcing.

The film shows four cheats, Ajay (Akshay Kumar) from Bombay, PK Sharma (Anupam Kher) from Chandigarh, Iqbal (Kishor Kadam) from Jaipur, and Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) from Old Delhi, who pose as CBI or Income Tax officials and raid corrupt politicians and very rich businessmen to steal their ill-gotten gains. For a raid at a minister’s house, they take the help of sub-inspector Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill) and lady constable Shanti Yadav (Divya Dutta). The heist yields them a rich haul.

Leaving Ranveer and Shanti at the minister’s house, the four make a quick getaway. Unwilling to talk about his black money, the minister refuses to file an FIR and is content with the suspension of Ranveer and Shanti.

Bristling with indignation, Ranveer is determined to bring the criminals to book. He makes some investigations of his own and appeals to the Central Bureau of Investigation for help. Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpayee), an upright officer, is assigned to help him.

Khan makes it his personal mission to catch the four red-handed, even as they are determined to pull off one last big heist, their 50th and biggest, before they can retire. In order to pull off their most outrageous caper, they recruit 22 graduates ostensibly for a “top-secret raid.” The four chors, along with the 22 recruits, are supposed to be the Special 26. Keen on catching them red-handed, Wasim Khan succeeds in infiltrating two policemen into the roster of new recruits.

But will the good guy outwit the thieves or will they retire in style?

The film does a very good job of portraying urban India of the mid ’80s. Ah, the glorious days, when they could not tap your phone through remote access but had to send a telephone linesman to your home. The props are all there, including the rotary phones, scooters, Maruti 800s, Premier Padminis and Ambassadors on the roads, the old currency notes, no-colour newspaper, the lack of skyscrapers, the lack of crowds outside the airport and the hoarding for Thril on a Best bus stop (Wouldn’t it have been more thrilling with the second ‘l’?)

We were planning to loot Rs 2 crore in 30 minutes, says Sharma. It didn't seem like all that much until I remembered that the film was set in 1987 when Rs 1000 meant a fortune, average salaries were in the 100s and the 4 anna was in its element. Sigh! The reality shows on TV have really spoiled us.

Special 26 gains much from the thin layer of dry humour that coats it. The sequence where Waseem asks his boss if he should start accepting bribes since his promotion and increment are taking too long and running the home front running is proving to be tough. In another sequence in which the four interview some potential candidates for their final scam, the candidates, when questioned, say that they want to join the Central Bank of India, because they are very honest and want to rid the country of corruption. One guy, told to speak English, answers, “I want to do India.” Another girl tells Ajay, “Milke ukhadenge.”

Unlike some of their recruits, our four chors have no larger-than-life motivation for what they do. It's just the means by which they earn a living. There is no guilt attached to their actions. Even though Ajay tells his ladylove that she makes him want to be a better man, the truth is that the said lady never really mounts any sincere protest against his method of making money.
Robin Hoods they are not. While they steal from the rich, they do not give the money to the poor. On the other hand, they do not splurge on themselves either. So where does the money go?
Nor was there any heavy-speak about why they did what they did, except for a wishy-washy explanation about how Ajay was keen on working for the CBI but failed the interview and the test.

The visual narrative goes out of its way to invest the four thieves with a sense of grandeur. The walks towards the camera in slow-mo, the corporate attire and the air of confidence and flamboyance, all key weapons in the tricksters' armoury.

The film begins well with a high-energy raid on the home of a minister. In fact, the heist sequences are the most watchable.

The director ruined his own show with the love track between Ajay and his bland love interest, Kajal Aggarwal. In fact, Divya Dutta with her cameo makes a better impression. She has very little dialogue in the film, but there is one line that she repeats thrice, each time underlying a different significance.

The romance totally marred the story. I guess they felt compelled to put it in, given star Akshay Kumar's lover boy image, but the cat-and-mouse chor-police game was far more interesting, and would have been even more potent without the baggage of the love story and the Punjabi wedding with the mandatory gidda.

Kher is outstanding, one moment playing the part of a law enforcement official to the hilt, secure in the righteousness of his duty, fearing no one, the next moment suffering nervousness and slouching for fear of being caught.

The four actors complement one another well. Unfortunately, Joginder and Iqbal have nothing much to do, except blend into the background and provide able support. Interestingly, not one of the four suffers any doubts or regrets in relation to the work they do.

Unnecessary time and footage is devoted to showing the modes of transport by which the four escape to their respective homes after the heist. Do these irrelevant pieces of information help the story?

How did the four, hailing from four distant regions, meet for the first time and decide to team up to pull off these con jobs? How did they go about their first illegal raid? That would have helped flesh out the characters and their motivations far better than Ajay’s insipid love story, Joginder’s joint family sleeping in the yard, Iqbal washing clothes while his wife nags, and Sharmaji’s hum do hamare chhe family with one more in the making. Unfortunately, the only thing known about their interpersonal relationships is that Sharma and Ajay share a warm father-son kind of rapport.

While the plot of the film, loosely based on the Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri robbery in the mid-1980s, works, there are a lot of goofups that ruin the total effect.

For instance, the mantri seemed completely shaken by one raid. I found that hard to stomach. What a blot on the high standards of our elected ministers! Had he no Swiss account? Was he so stupid as to keep everything stashed at home, in such obvious places as cupboards, false ceilings, car seats, in a niche beneath the deity and behind the book case?

Also, when we know that mantris care little about transferring senior police officers for their honesty and ineptitude alike, it was strange to discover that this mantri did not even know the commissioner of police looked like.

Also, the visual effects shriek ‘fake’ and Opera House seems to have shifted to Fountain.

I didn’t like the impression the film conveyed, that crime pays and how, and that the good guys, played by Manoj Vajpayee, are just a bunch of smart fools. Had the cops been corrupt, one would not have felt so guilty about cheering the thieves on.

I certainly resented being arm-twisted into rooting for the sheer audacity of the four chors, when my sympathy should very clearly have gone to the good guys, who had been gypped in spite of their hard work and intelligence.

I wondered, is our moral compass so off that when Ajay sends Rs 100 back to Waseem, saying that he will not take the earnings of an honest man, he seemed to rise in our estimation. So much so that he nearly dwarfed Waseem whose sense of honour and honesty is actually beyond question.

Unfortunately, everyone comes out of the cinema hall having a good time, not questioning the four phonies for outraging our morality. It just goes to show how willing we are to adjust our morals to suit the occasion, in a world in which the disclosure of yet another scam leaves us blasé.

Director Neeraj Pandey's debut film, A Wednesday, raised high expectations, which he let down here somewhat. The film is an above average thriller, hampered by the love story, but it missed out on the opportunity to take a moral stance. Today we are sufficiently deluded and disillusioned with the moral realities of today. We don't need our films to emphasise the rewards that await those who choose to muffle their conscience.

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