Little in cinema is as enjoyable, as seductively charming, as a good caper film, centered around a dashing thief and con-artist the audience has no choice but to root for against the agents of the staid State trying to foil him, a harmless outlet for what Hannah Arendt once called the bourgeoisie's fascination with criminality. And, on paper, Special 26, Neeraj Pandey's film about a bunch of thieves who in the late-1980s impersonate one of India's pre-eminent agencies, the Central Bureau of Investigation ("CBI"), conducting raids on, and looting, dozens of people with "black" money to hide (with the real CBI in hot pursuit), should have been that kind of film. It isn't: despite a generally solid cast and a high-quality plot (Pandey himself wrote it), the film is seriously let down by a directorial style that isn't nearly as nimble as this material needs it to be. In short, what Special 26 needed was elan; what Pandey offers is filmmaking that plods. That the film is nevertheless likely to end up as one of 2013's better films is a depressing commentary on the state of the Hindi film industry.
First, to the positives: Manoj Bajpai is superb as Waseem Khan, the (almost unpleasantly) single-minded CBI officer assigned the task of putting an end to the fake CBI's crime spree. Right from his diction to his slightly eccentric intonation to his comically furrowed brow, Bajpai hits all the right notes, never forgetting that if Special 26 isn't a comedy, it's setting is essentially comical, "inspired" by real-life incidents that border on the absurd (indeed, the "inspired by real-life incidents" line in the title credits plays an essential role in legitimating the plot; absent that stamp of approval, I suspect more than one reviewer would have dismissed the story as farcical). Bajpai's Khan is thus no naturalistic CBI officer, but the sort of oddball official one might encounter in a novel, easily the most compelling of the film's actors. It's great to see him in fine form, although he's lost so much weight he looks downright unwell here. Jimmy Shergill's Ranvir Singh, playing a cop duped by the fake CBI; and Divya Dutta, playing his trusty sidekick, don't have very much to do, but execute with reliable competence. (Indeed, given that most of Shergill's recent roles -- in Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster and Tanu Weds Manu, for instance -- have tended to cast him as an irascible, authoritarian figure, I was pleasantly surprised to see him in a mellower, more bumbling incarnation.) Akshay Kumar's is the starry turn, as the brain behind the con jobs pulled off by the fake CBI, and he makes his way through his part with solidity, if only sporadic flair (my favorite moment is the Calcutta sequence, when Akshay's Ajay and company run into the real CBI while impersonating a team from the Income Tax Department; it takes all of Ajay's Bengali to get out of the jam, and by film's end found I myself wishing there had been more such sequences). And the film's first "CBI" raid is gripping, even as it pays homage to a number of Hindi film cliches about corrupt politicians and the places they might hide their money in (behind the bookshelves? In an altar? Inside a car-seat? Check 'em all!). All of these are enough to make Special 26 worth a watch, and I do think the nearly-full weekend cinema hall I watched it in testifies to the fact that the film could have real legs at the box office.
But the films that veer off course by virtue of only a few tricks missed are more frustrating than those that never could have aspired to much, and top of the list of let-downs has to be Pandey's direction. Every twist and turn is flash-backed and explained to death, almost as if Pandey believed his audience were too dense for spoon-feeding to be eschewed. Special 26 could easily have survived poor casting choices like Anupam Kher as Ajay's partner-in-crime (it isn't that Kher is bad, as that he is stale; having shown us everything he could possibly do in so many films, he would need to be an actor of rare calibre to continue to seem fresh, or even engaged -- and he isn't), or Kajal Aggarwal as Ajay's lover (confirming my impression that her irritating listlessness in Magadheera was no one-off). Moreover, Pandey's style is repetitive and the film poorly edited: I lost count of the number of shots featuring groups of men marching towards the camera, or of the number of scenes that felt a couple of minutes too long; not to mention that with the exception of her last scene, every one of the heroine's scenes and the songs interrupted the narrative, bogging it down in terrain that didn't seem natural to Special 26. Finally, no low budget can excuse backdrops of Marine Drive and Calcutta's Howrah Bridge so fake I found myself wondering if I was dealing with a spoof. I wasn't: just a film with a solid writer and an over-matched director. Even if the two happen to be the same person.