Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26, a heist drama based on real-life incidents, is ready to hit the screens next month. Harshikaa Udasi gets the reticent director to speak about his film

He has been the apple of the industry’s eye ever since his first film A Wednesday released in 2008 and it has taken him five years before his second release, but the man’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Though he doesn’t admit it (shrugs his shoulders instead), he has been bombarded with calls from stalwarts in Bollywood. Each of them wants to be in a Neeraj Pandey film. You can’t evoke more than a smile on this subject from the reticent director. All his actors from the film are in fact surprised we even got him to speak. “I am the kind of guy who’d like to remain out of the public glare. I speak only to convey my thoughts and then like to shut up,” he says, as we settle for an ‘interview’!

But get this English Literature graduate from Kolkata talking about his films and he can silence the best. “I like to make films that get the audience thinking and keep them guessing about things. My execution of a shot is also different. People have liked it and I think they will enjoy how we have made Special 26 too,” says the director of his film that’s releasing on February 8. The film stars Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, Manoj Bajpai, Jimmy Shergill and Kajal Aggarwal.

Special 26 is a heist drama based on real-life incidents. In the 1980s, a con artist led a group of 26 men posing as CBI officers and conducted fake raids across the country amassing huge amounts. Their single biggest con act was at a leading jeweller’s store in Mumbai where they disappeared with jewellery worth lakhs of rupees. “The idea of the story came to me much before A Wednesday. Around 2000, I read about the case in an article and that the gang was never caught. It remained an unsolved mystery and that thought stayed with me. This person was just thinking with his mind and it was amazing. I started building a story around it stringing together some other real-life incidents in that timeline that might have or might not have been related. Of course, I dramatised the story with non-fiction elements too,” he reveals.

Neeraj’s ambitious project about the mind games of a man required a lead actor and the director singled out Akshay Kumar for the part immediately post-A Wednesday. “But films have their own destinies. I sent word to Aki through his office staff and the guys reverted with a no saying he had no dates. I did try approaching some other actors but, for reasons best known to them, they refused. Then, about two years ago, Viacom’s Vikram Malhotra (co-producers of this film along with Neeraj) asked me about talking to Akshay and I conveyed to him what the response was. He was doing a film with Aki and mentioned to him about Special 26 and Aki called me for a narration and he was on. Just like that! He told me that he had never got news of me approaching him earlier,” he smiles.

Collaborative effort

Akshay Kumar fitted the role to a T which required him to be stylish, slick and witty. “Akshay is amazingly disciplined. He knew there was no room for changes or improvement because I had given him a bound script. He was not afraid to share screen space in spite of his huge presence in the industry. Also, what really surprised me and a lot of others who heard of this from me, was that he gave time for one-to-one as well as joint reading sessions!” says Neeraj. “In fact, I am blessed. All my actors have given their best. A director needs the collaborative effort of his team. I can’t take the credit alone for a film.”

Though the movie is set in the 1980s, Neeraj says he hasn’t gone overtly retro with the look. “Not every person on the street dressed up like those movie stars! Yes, the streets looked different so we have worked on that and a few subtle references are there to the look. We haven’t gone deep into the detailing,” he explains.

Neeraj is a writer at heart and loves to take to the pen. “It’s a single person effort unlike direction where you require the coordination of four people. It’s more a personal flow of creativity,” he says, retreating into his me-world again.