Saturday, February 9, 2013

Special Chabbis: Not so special but entertaining enough.

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About three-quarters of the way through Special 26 I began composing a scathing review in my head. “Filmi Girl struts down the theater aisle in slow motion, accompanied by retro horns, FIR in hand. These are the charges against Special 26...” You get the idea.

But I had been conned.

By director Neeraj Pandey.

And about seven-eighths of the way into the film I dropped almost all the charges and left the theater with a big smile on my face.

There is only so much I can talk about in regards to the specifics of the plot without spoiling the suspense. In brief, Special 26 is the story of four friends/con men - Ajju (Akshay Kumar), Sharma (Anupam Kher), Iqbal (Kishor Kadam), and Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) - who pose as government officials in order to scam rich people out of their money. They target people who have made money off of the black market so their victims never want to report the crimes.

Thanks to a hint from police officer Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill), the group comes to the attention of hard-ass CBI agent Wasim (Manoj Bajpayee), who makes it his goal to track them down and put a stop to their con artistry.

Kajal Agarwal also turns up for a few short scenes as Ajju’s love interest.

That’s about the long and short of the film story-wise. There’s really not much there in the script, which is one of the two charges remaining on the FIR I drafted in my head during the post-interval slump. Let me tackle those first before I get into what does work in the film.

Despite what the critics have been saying about how superb it is, I was very unimpressed with the script. The foundations of the story are solid, as is the plotting, but instead of delving into the characters motivations or relationships, Neeraj Pandey only hints as these things with the main three characters - Ajju, Sharma, and Wasim - giving us enough to be curious but too little to be satisfying. Are we supposed to care about these characters or are they just cogs in a heist film? Neeraj Pandey can’t make up his mind.

This brings me to the second charge against the film, which is this - it felt to me like a good thirty minutes of the run time was just people walking around in split screen set to retro music and another twenty was devoted to flashbacks of things in black-and-white, also set to retro music. What a waste of screen time! It felt very much like a 90 minute Hollywood-style film had been stretched and padded to fill out a more typical Hindi film running time and the result was flabby.

As I watched Akshay and Manoj strutting around, in split screen, again, I couldn’t help but feel that the time would have been better spent giving some other characters some backstory. Why hire great actors like Jimmy Shergill, Kishor Kadam, and Rajesh Sharma and then have them stand around as window dressing? Neeraj Pandey may as well have hired Tusshar Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan, and some other star sons for those roles at least gotten some free publicity out of it. But since we can’t go back and take advantage of all the missed opportunities to insert good filmmaking into the endless walk-and-strut sequences, I can’t help but feel that a 90 minute cut of the film would be more satisfying.

Still, aside from the flabby script and editing, there were some nice things going on in the film. Akshay and Anupam Kher were great. Since I started going to Hindi films in the theater at the end of 2006, I have yet to miss an Akshay film and while this isn’t his best performance ever, it’s a nice one and shows that even in these “Hindie” films that sometimes the unintellectual method of acting is best. Ajay, as written, is a paper doll and any actor trying to find motivation in the script would have been s.o.l. (which is why I think Manoj Bajpayee is a bit weak) but Akshay is a very physical actor and he convey a lot with the set of his shoulders or a wan smile. He doesn’t need to know why his character does things, he just does them wholeheartedly. Akshay plays well off of Anupam and their dosti holds what little heart there is in the film.

But what really makes the film worth watching is the setting. There was something so refreshing about Neeraj Pandey’s 1980s India. The period setting wasn’t used as an excuse for filmi in-jokes and campy winks at the camera, something that almost always embarrasses me as a viewer, as if it’s only okay to enjoy song-dance and melodrama and herogiri if it’s safely tucked away between quotation marks. (CC: Nautanki Saala) Instead, we see an 1980s India done in khaki and drab green. Consumer goods are scarce, jobs are scarce, and there’s something really satisfying about watching rich ministers and merchants being separated from their ill-gotten gains.

This film could have have been made 30 years eariler with Akshay’s Ajay played by Amitabh Bachchan, socking one to the powers-that-be. How novel to have a film where the undertone isn’t some whiney middle-class man pain about “finding myself” or the even more self-indulgent “finding somebody to love me” but an undertone of frustration with Crony Captialism.

Though it might have seemed pointless at first, I think that emphasizing that undertone was the purpose of the twenty or so minutes devoted to the job seekers that Ajay and Sharma are interviewing as the film opens. Here are some young (and not so young) folks that really just want to do something productive for their country but what happens to them? Neeraj also lands a few jabs at the growing presence of English at the expense of Hindi and at the practice of bribery.

It didn’t quite live up to its potential as a hybrid Hindie-Entertainer but I did enjoy Special Chabbis for what it was (even if it really needed more Jimmy Shergill). If you’re an Akshay fan or if you like those kinds of middlebrow Khosla Ka Ghosla films, it’s worth checking out in the theater and for the rest of you, it’s certainly worth checking out on DVD or Netflix if you’re bored on some Tuesday night in a few months.


odadune said...

Still planning on seeing this, but I think it's clear the critical reaction is one part "no way can this be as simple and self-indulgent as it looks-it's from the director of A Wednesday!" and one part "we feel bad about picking on the nice hardworking man w/ the back problems who makes slapstick comedies, so let's encourage him when he tries to make our kind of movies."

violet said...

gr8 review...might catch it only because i wanna see akshay pull of something like this and rub it into the critics faces :P ...

On a completely different note, Mirchi released this weekend too and contains a lot of the usual prabhas being adorable and badass at the same time...interested?

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I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

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