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'Special 26'

From common man to con man

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A FEAST OF A HEIST: 'Special 26' is the story of a spectacular heist pulled off at a time when there were no cell phones or internet

Director of the critically acclaimed 'A Wednesday!', Neeraj Pandey talks about his fixation with the police force and his decision to cast Akshay Kumar against type in his new film, 'Special 26'.

I don't think any filmmaker likes to make the same kind of films over and over again, " says writer-director Neeraj Pandey. "There should be some variety. Each film should be as different as chalk and cheese. " This was in response to a question about the presence of cops - both, fake and real - in his new film, Special 26. His first, A Wednesday!, too, had cops taking the centre-stage.

More than fascination for police force, he says it is his admiration for them that shines through his films. As far off from having any real-life connection with cops as the uniformed men have from the fantasyfilled Bollywood, he says, "It's a happy coincidence that both my films depict cops". But he admits that it is reassuring to hear compliments from police officers, some of them having told him "that my films look real". To achieve such authenticity, Pandey often relies on extensive research. "Part of my job is to find plausible situations and create characters that echo with ordinary people, " says Pandey, sitting in his suburban Mumbai office, facing a wall that sparkles with famous movie quotations, mainly from two favourite directors, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra.

Closer home, it is Vijay Anand whose "engaging storytelling style and sense of music" appeals to him. There is a line on the quotation wall that reads (it's not attributed to Wilder or Capra though): "The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way". "Inspirational, isn't it?" he asks, pointing to the wall.

Originally from Kolkata who lived in Delhi for some time, Neeraj Pandey arrived on the Bollywood scene with A Wednesday!, a taut thriller about Mumbai police held to ransom by a disgruntled, anonymous caller. The theme of old frustration at the system told in a new way resonated with the common man. From nowhere, Pandey went on to be hailed as a filmmaker to watch.

"When you are making your first film - or second, or third or any - you are not thinking about the praises or criticisms that will come your way. Similarly, at the time of A Wednesday! I was only trying to do my job well, " he says, adding, "With Special 26, I am aware that there will be expectations but again, you have to focus on the job at hand and not think too much about what will come your way. "

Starring Akshay Kumar along with Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpayee, Special 26 is set in the '80s (" at a time when there was no cell phones and internet" ) and is about 26 men who pose as income tax officials to pull off a spectacular heist. The film bears no resemblance to other popular heist thrillers, neither Ocean's Trilogy nor Catch Me If You Can.

"People will draw their own comparisons if they want to. But I can tell you that I did not set out to make any of the films you mentioned. "

"Also, " he adds, "it would be stupid to remake Ocean's Trilogy or Catch Me If You Can because they are such good films that you would rather watch them. " The idea for Special 26 was taken from a newspaper article that Pandey remembers reading - "with great interest". It was about a string of unsolved crime cases in the state of Maharashtra. "What caught my eye was that there was this man who was a true confidence artist. "

The confidence artist - or con artist is essayed by Akshay Kumar. It was a task to pin Kumar down. At one point in his pursuit, Pandey thought of opting for another actor because he wasn't sure whether Kumar was interested at all.

"We had approached him about three years ago, " he recalls. "But his office indicated that he wasn't keen. Then, we started looking for other actors until one day I ran into Vikram Malhotra (of Viacom 18 Motion Pictures) who was thankfully meeting Akshay the same day and promised to remind him. "

When Malhotra met Kumar later that day, the actor, clueless about who Neeraj Pandey was, asked bewilderingly: "I have not heard anything about this script!"

Pandey was fully aware of the risk they were taking by casting Akshay Kumar against type. Also, the actor was going through a rough patch until Rowdy Rathore came along to save him from the ignominy of flops. But none of that bothered the director.

"When you set your eyes on a particular actor, it is unimportant what his box-office status is. " Even Akshay Kumar's worst critics would concede that the actor looks set to reclaim with this film some of his talent, which many detractors say he was wasting on mindless comedies. The joke was that he had become 'the new Govinda'.

Pandey, for one, vouches for Kumar's talent. Working with him was a revelation. "It was easy to direct him because he listens attentively and is amazingly disciplined, " he says, adding, "And what a wonderfully gifted actor he is, I think we all know. "
Praising his other favourite, Anupam Kher who was at the centre of all action in A Wednesday! and returns with an equally pivotal role in Special 26, he says, "I enjoyed the experience of working with him. He understands what is required and delivers. With him, there is a sense of comfort. " About Naseeruddin Shah, he says: "Despite being the legend that he is, he served A Wednesday !. He put the film before himself. "

A few years ago, when he approached Naseeruddin Shah for A Wednesday!, he couldn't believe his luck when the actor called back, wanting to be a part of the film. "I had sent him a script, with my number on the last page. I was surprised when he called and said: 'I would be happy to do any role in this film".

Today, when Pandey revisits A Wednesday !, he finds "flaws at some places". But a director improves as he goes along, he insists.

"Of course, I feel I could have done better, " he says, "but then there is always next time."

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