Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26 is set in the 1980s—mostly in Delhi, when Connaught Place was a clean white orbit, with only the newly built Jeevan Bharti Building towering over. Pandey gets the look of Delhi right. There is a chase sequence in the area, ordinarily shot, involving an unarmed, ordinary Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officer and a criminal caught trying to hand over a suitcase full of money to a man in a Premier Padmini. Ad jingles from Doordarshan play in the background.
The detailed setting aside, the story is true. In 1987, a con man duped a big jeweller in Mumbai of Rs.35 lakh worth of jewels, posing as a CBI officer. He has never been caught. Pandey’s lead character is Mon Singh (Akshay Kumar) and his allies in the con jobs he conducts serially across the country are three middle-class men desperate for some money, including P.K. Sharma (Anupam Kher), the father of many children from Chandigarh.
Police officer Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill) and constable Shanti (Divya Dutta), whom the con team duped, come on board to assist the CBI, which is entrusted with the job of nabbing Mon Singh and his men. Officer Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpai) leads this crack team. The climactic episode is based on the exact way the real-life Mon Singh executed the robbery of the Mumbai jeweller—by putting in an ad in a daily, he carried out walk-in interviews to hire recruits to the CBI who helped him in the heist.
The story and screenplay have the promise of a simple and linear heist. But Pandey digresses. He opens up a love story for Mon Singh. There are songs. There is a bhangra number set in Chandigarh. There are way too many scenes of either the four con men or the CBI team just walking towards the camera in slow motion. Past events are shown repeatedly in flashback. The background score, which imitates a bad disco track from the 1980s, hammers the film throughout. Every small action is set to music. Above all, a banal justification of why Mon Singh decided to pose as a CBI officer, giving him a fake moral aura, spoils just about everything about the character.
Without these stock trappings of the most blatantly crowd-pleasing Bollywood potboiler, Pandey’s film would have been leaner, focused on building the suspense of the story. Sometimes, frills just get in the way—here they did.
Kumar is uninspired and has the same one-expression presence throughout the film. For Bajpai, it seems like too easy a role; he also depends on the same furrowed eyebrows to express his desperation to solve the case. Rajesh Sharma, who plays one of the allies and is an accomplished actor, has little to do. Kher brings some shades to his role with his mannerisms and gait.
Special 26 is a disappointment, and this has a lot to do with the fact that Pandey tries very hard to make it a safe Bollywood film.
Special 26 released in theatres on Friday.