The last time Neeraj Pandey made a movie was nearly 5 years ago. It was a taut, two-character drama called A Wednesday and gave its stars — Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher — such good material to work with that their sheer joy at playing these characters shone through. The film was not without its flaws, but during its running time, one could not help but stay riveted.

Ordinarily, a good deed such as a well-made, well-received first movie does not go unpunished. The result is usually a bigger budget, bigger stars (with bigger egos) and — sadly enough, more often than not — a bigger but not necessarily better film.

Neeraj Pandey has indeed gotten himself a bigger budget. It has most probably gone towards paying a bigger star (Akshay Kumar) and mounting a more lavish production (the film is set in mid-eighties India, and the period detailing is wonderful). But here’s the thing: it seems like he has spent a good bit of the time since his first film doing something extraordinarily strange: writing a good script. The result is a film that has only a few (mostly forgivable) flaws, works for nearly its entire running length, and is practically crowded with good performances.

Caper movies, like this one about a bunch of con-men who pretend to be CBI officers conducting a raid and make off with the ill-gotten gains of the rich and powerful, are as much about character as about plot. In fact, the more entertaining the characters and their interactions, the less you worry about whether the plot holds together. And since crime capers usually hinge on so many things going precisely right at precisely the right time, it is very easy to poke holes in the plot afterwards. This one is no different. What makes it work is the sheer joy of the ride. 

And this joy is to be found in abundance in Special Chabbis. Let me start with the lesser players and work my way upwards. There is the henpecked husband (Kishor Kadam) whose day job seems to be washing his wife’s clothes and generally trying not to incur her wrath. And a lady constable (Divya Dutta) who essentially has one line of dialogue, repeated at various junctures, and yet manages to make you want to see more of her.

The bigger players have even more fun, maybe because they rarely get to have this much of it. Jimmy Shergill, who exuded toughness in A Wednesday, plays an earnest cop whose palpable chagrin at having been duped provides the punchline to nearly everything he says or does. Manoj Bajpayee, who is enjoying a welcome return to form these days, brings a fearsome intensity to his role as the cop on the trail of these con-men, but leavens it with a dash of wry humour (his specifically worded request for water at the end brings the house down). Akshay Kumar, who seems to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts playing second fiddle to seasoned character actors, brings every ounce of his star power to the Danny Ocean role, but doesn’t upstage the movie by it.

It is Anupam Kher, though, who is the star here. There are moments when his character’s nervousness reminds you of the one he played in Khosla Ka Ghosla, while at other times he displays the ferocity of his character in A Wednesday. The funny thing is, although the various shades of his character here find echoes in other characters he has played before, rarely has he had an opportunity to do so much in one film. Or, for that matter, in one single take. Watch how his body language changes in the course of a walk through a corridor. This is an actor at the peak of his powers, having an absolute ball in front of the camera.

Watching these people act is a pleasure in and as of itself, but watching them interact is the key here. Notice Akshay Kumar’s actions and facial expressions during his phone conversation with Anupam Kher on the eve of the latter’s daughter’s wedding. Listen to Manoj Bajpayee’s conversation with his boss about his promotion. There is no greater pleasure in cinema than spending a couple of hours in the presence of interesting characters who enjoy each other’s company enough to talk like that.

 

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