In his latest offering Special Chabbis — based on true heist incidents — director Neeraj Pandey highlights this likelihood with a tremendous mix of shrewd brainpower against obsolete technology.
And so we travel 26 (ahem) years back in time (January 26, 1987) to witness some documented footage of former President Giani Zail Singh and the late Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi at the parade before a hand turns the knob, not a remote control, to switch off a bulky black and white television set.
The hand belongs to Ajay Singh (Akshay Kumar) who’s readying his team of three others (Anupam Kher, Kishore Kadam, Rajesh Sharma) to carry out a raid at a politician’s house by flashing counterfeit documentation and Central Bureau of Investigation identities. These crisply dressed gentlemen are professional conmen, of course, and Republic Day is just another day at work.
Not only do they ransack the man’s home with wealth hidden in temple drawers, concealed ceilings or behind secretly planted doors in broad day light but trick the cops (Jimmy Shergill, Divya Dutta are efficient) also into assisting them at it. This, of course, gets the goat of the authentic CBI officer (Manoj Bajpayee), now hot on the trail of these super sharp swindlers no one wants to report about since black money is involved.
It’s the late 1980s, India is yet to be hit by the globalisation wave and corruption is flourishing quietly without the influx of news channels to report or debate. Anil Kapoor is rocking Bollywood but Amitabh Bachchan continues to reign supreme. Even the auto rickshaw still flags its loyalty towards the Big B with a hand-painted Shakti poster adorning its interior.
Pandey not only creates a sense of 1987 with props and products but the inhabitants of Special Chabbis delicately convey the idealism and morality associated with that period. Whether it’s the significance of a 100 rupee note (which held great value in 1987) or the concept of buying imported goods from Mumbai or the absolute lack of regret or embarrassment in Kher’s character for fathering more than half a dozen kids and another on the way at his age, it all effectually recreates the past.
At the same time, and this is interesting, there’s not any attempt to explain why these men do what they do. They are a bunch of regular people who rob after careful planning and ‘enjoy’ it. No back story or pay-back triggered by humiliation here. A sly explanation is offered around pre-climax but it’s never revealed if genuine or phony like their paperwork.
The narrative, which favours a warm, sepia visual scheme, travels back and forth between January and February leading to the events in March and numerous cities –Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur and Chandigarh but Pandey’s writing has its chronology so planned and in order, it’s neither confusing nor cumbersome to keep up.
Pandey’s filmmaking has always prioritised matter over cosmetics. Like A Wednesday, Special Chabbis isn’t exceptional in technique — no fancy camera work or hip background score — but practical enough to assemble a robust, taut film that gets over sooner than you think. His focus is on movement to imply a breathless pace. All his characters are constantly on the move with long-shots of their energetic march towards the camera.
But that doesn’t undermine his ambition or how effectively it achieves the same. Filming in Delhi’s bustling Rajiv Chowk and transforming it into 1987’s Connaught Place is no easy task. Barring a fleeting shot of Peter England’s showroom, Pandey recreates an earlier time with old Only Vimal/Bata advertisement logos and outdated car models of Ambassadors, Premiere Padminis and Maruti 800s forming the sparse traffic.
Detailed production design is one of the finest attributes of this con caper — old currency notes, dial phones, cordless phones, hard-shell luggage, well-researched advertising placements (featuring almost forgotten beverages like Thrill) or discontinued magazines in their revived glory (Dharmyug, Illustrated Weekly). Even the wedding décor aesthetics are period-appropriate. There’s so much confidence at display here, it’s almost as though Pandey is challenging us to find flaws.
The ones I could find have more to do with the token romance track involving the pretty Kajal Aggarwal. Though her entry leads to some lilting M M Kreem creations, it’s completely needless in the middle of all the action (of wits) and chemistry generated by Kumar and Bajpai. That excellent bar scene (with complimentary soda) is a testimony to their two-sides-of-the-same-coin camaraderie and fizz.
Also, the way Pandey treats the second rung of the con team; both Kishore Kadam and Rajesh Sharma are relegated to the sidelines. While Kadam at least gets one scene to describe his background of a henpecked hubby, Rajesh Sharma remains the most under developed of the four.
Despite being the senior-most member of the pack, Kher’s character doesn’t reek of patronising wisdom. In fact he’s the fun chap — thoroughly nervous but happy-go-lucky whose light-weight panic and droopy spine provides Special Chabbis some of its more droll moments.
Speaking of which, Pandey’s script isn’t loaded with intended humour but is open to subtle strokes of unexpected hilarity. Like when an undercover officer clad in Lord Shiva’s avatar, suddenly walks past a serious discussion between Bajpai and Shergill, casually greeting them with a ‘Good Morning, Sir.’
The interview sequence, wherein the two AKs (Kumar and Kher) interact with a bunch of job candidates is typically entertaining with its range of loony responses, most peculiar being, ‘I want to do my country.’
But what’s truly Special about this Chabbis is to see two such different actors, one reliably awesome and the other getting out of his comfort zone of mindless money-spinners to collaborate and credit a script that gives them something concrete and equivalent to work on.
There’s the smashing Bajpai, of a penetrating gaze and attractive dynamism, who spells more than words with his sardonic laughter and request for ‘Chuloo bhar paani.’ On the other, Akshay Kumar comes up with a measured delivery, which both, intimidates and eases-up as per the the mood yet remains somewhat distant, mysterious and inscrutable till the end. This line sums him best, ‘Logon ke pairon mein chakra hota hai. Mere dimaag mein hai.’
Oh yes, Special Chabbis is my second favourite film of 2013 so far.
This review was first published on rediff.com