Cinema After a tremendous start with A Wednesday, director Neeraj Pandey steps up with yet another thriller. Anuj Kumar

Neeraj Pandey, the director who shot to fame with A Wednesday – the taut thriller which shook even the most hard-boiled of cineastes – has returned to turnstiles with Special 26 . A gap of four years is unusually long in these days of readymade recipes. What did he do in between? Well, he was the creative producer of a Marathi film Taryanche Bet , which questions the value system against the backdrop of economic liberalisation. A father who can’t afford to take his little son to malls and five star hotels wagers with his ward that if he comes first in the class he will take him for a one-night stay at the glitzy hotel. The boy suddenly transforms and the father begins to worry. “To me, content is everything and that’s the way it should be. It is not something I planned. We felt the idea should be backed,” says Pandey in a matter-of-fact tone.

Meanwhile, the idea he had in his mind for his second directorial venture took time to take shape. “In 2001, I read this newspaper article about a heist in Mumbai where a man called Mon Singh raided a popular jewellery store in broad daylight posing as an Income Tax officer and decamped with jewellery worth lakhs, leaving behind a posse of young men who thought they were part of a mock raid. It happened in 1987, but as the man was not caught it continued to resurface in newspapers. The idea refused to leave my head, but I didn’t know the complete story. So I picked similar incidents that happened in other parts of the country and weaved them into a fictional narrative. The casting was crucial and it took some time to bring the ensemble cast together.”

He agrees Akshay Kumar doesn’t seem the obvious choice after working with Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher, but at the same time avers that Akshay was his first choice for the role of Ajay Singh, the con artiste, after mulling over a lot of names, including Abhishek Bachchan. “You will see a different side of Akshay here…one that is restrained and controlled.” Unlike A Wednesday , which had a serious message wrapped inside a thriller, Pandey says, “ Special 26 is an unapologetic crime caper where the only message one can take home is what not to do.” The USP of the film, says Pandey, is its terrific ensemble cast which pits Akshay Kumar, the epitome of what we called blockbuster Bollywood, against actors like Manoj Bajpayee and Anupam Kher, with the likes of Rajesh Sharma and Divya Dutta bringing variety to the table.

One of the most difficult tasks, according to Pandey, was to recreate the ‘80s. Special 26 is one of the last works of cinematographer Bobby Singh, who passed away recently. “I am not one of those for whom period setting means prominent side burns and exaggerated bell bottoms. Bobby and costume designer Falguni (Thakore) played a big role in realising my ideas. We have tried to recreate the times through normal working people. And since most of our audience has seen the period we needed to be precise. The introduction scene of Manoj is seven minutes long and has been shot in Connaught Place. It became quite a task to keep those brands and cars out of the frame that didn’t exist in the ‘80s.” Since Pandey had come to Delhi in 1992 to study English literature, he was more or else aware of the times. “I remember at that time phatphatiyas used to ply in Connaught Place. It was a strange contraption of Royal Enfield with a carriage attached to it to ferry passengers. We had to bring them from Gujarat where they still ply.”

Recently Bejoy Nambiar told us a story set in 1975. Hasn’t it become a fad to go back in time? It seems the present is not exciting enough for our young filmmakers. Pandey says with him it was just that the story got stuck in his head. “And the idea could not be transposed to today.”

The film follows the conmen to Delhi, Kolkata , Chandigarh and Mumbai, adding to the cost. Interestingly, these are some of the cities Neeraj grew up in and understands. “A large sum has been spent on the visual effects to maintain the temperament of each city as they looked like in the ‘80s. And this answers the question of roping in a star like Akshay. Once he agreed, I got a lot more creative liberty to realise my ideas. But this doesn’t mean his presence dilutes the voice of the film. He is part of the complete package.”

It sounds familiar, as more and more young filmmakers are falling for the star trap after showing tremendous promise and independent streak in the first couple of films. The love angle of the con artist also seems to be a part of this exercise to reach out to a bigger audience. “I am aware of the pitfalls,” he remarks, “but as I said Akshay has internalised the character and we had to explain the reason behind his action. So there has to be a bit of a back story.”

On censorship by fringe groups

It is sad that every time a film faces opposition from some fringe elements it is the filmmaker who has to give in. As an industry, we should show more unity and there needs to be a reassessment of the system. At present, it seems some groups, for the sake of publicity, keep waiting to hit films that have slightly provocative themes or dialogues.