When a film features Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpai among its cast, you know that this is not going to be your typical masala Bollywood film. Seeing them together on the pre-release posters of Special 26 instantly created high expectations. The film is a robbery drama set in 1987, starring Akshay Kumar and Kajal Aggarwal in the lead roles, with Bajpai and Kher in supporting roles alongside Jimmy Shergill. It is the director Neeraj Pandey's second Bollywood film - his first being the critically acclaimed 2008 thriller drama A Wednesday!
"I am one of the very few actors who has worked with so many first-time directors," says Kher. "Whether it is Aditya Chopra or Karan Johar or Dibaker Banerjee or Neeraj. You come to know on the first day how this director is going to be, based on the kind of and amount of movies that you have done. With Neeraj, the moment he gave me the script of A Wednesday!, it was finalised that I am going to do this film. I was amazed that anyone could write a script like that. And when the film was finished, it was exactly what I had read in the script. With Special 26, I was pleasantly surprised again. He really carries through the narrative of the script into the film very well."
"We are actors and this is our job," says Bajpayee. "We are ready to do any kind of film, but the script has to be exciting enough. I try to choose something unique, exciting and appealing - something I have never done before. I could see all of that in the script of Special 26. I had seen A Wednesday! and I was completely bowled over. I called Neeraj up four years ago and not only talked about the film but also about my keenness to do a film with him. Since then I have been chasing him and finally I got a chance with this film. It's a fantastic role, which is one of a kind. It's something that I am very proud of being part of."
Special 26 is the story of a group of real-life conmen from the 1980s who swindled millions out of politicians and businessmen by posing as government officers such as tax-officers.
"The film required a lot of very specific pre-production and attention to detail," says Pandey. "I was lucky to have amazing DOPs [director of photography], production designers and costume designers. We all worked very closely to achieve the right look. When you base the film in a previous decade, the prep time becomes a little longer. In this case, we took about four months to research and develop the whole thing."
Pandey is known to be a perfectionist. Does he see himself as a tough director?
"It's very easy for people to interpret it the wrong way, but I believe that actors do enjoy the direction they get from their director," says Pandey. "Anwyay, this is just my second film and between them [Kumar, Bajpai, Kher and Aggarwal] they have 600 films."
"There was no question of creative differences," says Kher. "Neeraj gave us the liberty to create as much as we wanted to within the framework of the script. I am very proud to be part of this project. There are many directors who may have your admiration but there are very few directors who have your admiration along with your respect. Neeraj is one of them."
Is there a line between law and lawlessness in the film?
"This is a very smart film about losers who are actually winners," says Kher. "It's about charming people with their tenacity, winning people's admiration and doing things that the law may not exactly approve of. In 1987, there was a lot less technology and yet, to swindle so much money openly and not get caught is fantastic. We are not talking about lawlessness and law in the film. We are making a film about fake people and real people and in this film, until the end you will not discover who is fake and who is real."