If Neeraj Pandey is weighed down by expectations, he is not showing it.
The 2008 film, A Wednesday, which Pandey wrote and directed, was a nuanced film that pitted Hindi film powerhouses Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher against each other. The film with a strong social comment earned both critical and commercial success and made Pandey a film-maker to watch out for.
With his second film as director, Special 26, releasing on 8 February, Pandey carries the burden of fulfilling the promise he showed four years ago, but he remains unaffected. “Making this film is not too different from A Wednesday; you still have the action-cut-roll routine,” he says at the office of his company, Friday Filmworks, in Mumbai. “That’s what life does… on any day, you are not thinking such things (expectations). Once in a while, on an off-day, you may get the thought but you don’t live with it.
“When someone asks the question, like you do now,” he says, smiling, “I am thinking about it, but it’s not a recurring thought.”
Special 26 is based on a real incident in 1987 when 28 people, pretending to be officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation, walked into a jewellery store in Zaveri Bazaar. Their leader said he was from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and they were investigating the quality of the jewels sold. He then walked out with “samples” worth over Rs.35 lakh and was never seen again, according to newspaper reports.
“I read a news item around 2000-01 of unsolved cases in Mumbai and this incident caught my eye for the reason that it was so cerebral in its execution,” says Pandey. “There was not much technology then, so this is the story of a true confidence artist.”
Akshay Kumar plays the lead role in Pandey’s film, which is a fictionalized account of the incident. “Akshay, for me, is an actor in the film. It was clear right from Day 1, he understood that he is here as an actor, not as a star,” explains Pandey on why the casting for his second film is so different from his first.
Pandey started out writing love stories, he says, which were never made into films before A Wednesday happened. But even if both his films seem to have similar elements of law enforcers and the chase, he considers the two to be quite different. “A Wednesday got people thinking and it moved people,” says Pandey. “Because of the genre and topic, it was a relevant film. This (Special 26) is not in that space. It’s more of a caper film and hence is totally different. Is it more irreverent? Yes, because it’s an unapologetic tale of this guy who did what he did.”
Pandey’s research for the film is based on newspaper reports, which stayed with him since he first read about this incident over a decade ago. He says the massive production included costumes that represent the 1980s, transporting Connaught Place to the same period, besides the ensemble cast that includes Manoj Bajpai and Jimmy Shergill. There was also a coincidental meeting, during the shoot in Mumbai, with an employee of the hotel in which the gang leader stayed after the heist.
“It’s a completely commercial film,” says Pandey. “It’s got songs because the scale is bigger, and because it’s a film where you can have a lot of fun. I love that format, as long as it does not go against the grain, and I grew up on it. There was no such scope in A Wednesday, that’s something I was clear about.”
He says the biggest compliment he received after A Wednesday was when a couple of children said they would join the police force after seeing the film. “This one though,” he pauses, “tells you exactly what not to do”.
Special 26 is scheduled to release on 8 February.