One absolutely failsafe way of figuring out the efficacy of a movie is to measure how heavy its runtime weighs on the audience.
Special 26 is actually quite a long film – it is a shade under two and a half hours. But it feels much shorter than it really is.
It glides by with such effortlessness that it leaves behind no unsightly footmarks.
Special 26 is an intelligently scripted, superbly acted, enthralling and believable heist film that is more than just that.
Writer-director Neeraj Pandey’s maiden film, A Wednesday, was a taut thriller that delivered a sharp comment on the nation’s frequent and bloody brushes with the spectre of terrorism.
This one turns the spotlight, if only tangentially, on India’s collective and seemingly never-ending struggle to rid itself of the scourge of rampant corruption.
Special 26, "inspired by true incidents", is set in the first few months of 1987, one of the final years of the long-entrenched licence-permit raj that allowed self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen to rob the people of the country at will and with impunity.
Without spelling it out in so many words, the film poses the question: a quarter century on, has anything really changed? Special 26 deals with an era that is long gone. Yet the central issue that it raises is still as relevant as ever.
At the heart of the film is an intriguing battle of wits between an honest-to-a-fault CBI officer Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) on the one hand and a cynical con artist Ajay Vardhan (Akshay Kumar) and his older associate P.K. Sharma (Anupam Kher) on the other.
While one is a committed custodian of a terribly flawed enforcement system, the other two think nothing of exploiting its many loopholes to serve their own get-rich-quick designs.
Waseem is a government functionary willing to slug it out in the field even as he waits patiently for a promised promotion and a better pay packet.
He asks his boss in mock-seriousness: "Can’t make ends meet. Should I start taking bribes?" That, of course, is the last thing on his mind.
Ajay, on the other hand, has a reason to be cut up with the way life has treated him. So he and his accomplices are out to make those who live off the fat of the land pay for their greed.
There is no hero or villain here – both Waseem and Ajay are common men simply going about their lives, each opting for his own methods.
None of the main characters, let alone the minor ones, has detailed back stories that could help the audience grasp exactly where they are coming from. Yet each of them is generally interesting enough to be integral to the jigsaw that the film is.
Neeraj Pandey is particularly adept at laying out his principal spaces and extracting dramatic value from them – the locations and settings play an important part in not only taking the story forward, but also in capturing the shifting moods of the different players.
The cavernous and haphazardly lit CBI office where Waseem works, the huge; red-carpeted hall in which the fake law enforcers conduct the interviews to recruit young intelligence officials for one final mission; the streets and interiors where the raids take place; and the various terraces on/from which the sleuths operate (the director obviously has a fixation for rooftops) are all vital (and not merely incidental) elements in the narrative.
Even the minor characters have clearly identified locations – Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) belongs to Old Delhi, Iqbal (Kishore Kadam) is a Jaipur man and film’s only romantic interest is a teacher whose Mumbai school makes an appearance a few times.
These details of space, even when they are only fleeting, serve the purpose of underlining the slants and motives of the characters.
If there is a weak link in Special 26, it is the somewhat laboured love story involving Ajay and his pretty Mumbai neighbour, Priya (Kajal Aggarwal). Ignore the inevitable love ditties and a big fat wedding number, and there is little else in the film that would appear out of place.
Especially well executed is the daring CBI raid that the film opens with – it is conducted on Republic Day 1987 in the bungalow of a corrupt and cowering minister.
The build-up is steady and the cat-and-mouse game that the real CBI men play with the fake ones assumes increasing urgency as the film hurtles towards the final flashpoint – an audacious sortie on a high-end jewellery store in Mumbai.
Besides the gripping climactic moments – the highlight of which is a surprise last-minute twist – the film has a superbly mounted chase scene in Delhi’s Connaught Place as Waseem and his men zero on a suspect.
Special 26 hinges on four pivotal performances, with Manoj Bajpayee’s star turn being the standout one. It is a classic demonstration of what a consummate actor can achieve when he is at complete ease with the material at his disposal.
The pre-climactic scene between Bajpayee the armed interrogator and Anupam Kher the cornered target is remarkable for both its intensity and wit. The encounter crackles with controlled energy.
Akshay Kumar, shorn of all his superhero trappings, is a revelation. He stands up to the challenge with effort to spare. And Jimmy Shergill, whose invariably steady work often flies under our collective radars, is splendid as the man in uniform who has a score to settle with the conmen.
Just one grouse: wish Rajesh Sharma and Kishore Kadam were given a better deal. They are too good to be wasted in walk-on parts.
Verdict: Special 26 truly special. Not be missed.