Neeraj Pandey’s first film, A Wednesday (2008), was about the terrorist as Everyman. His new film, Special Chabbis, is about the criminal con as Everyman. Based on a series of real incidents from the 1980s, Special Chabbis tells the story of a group of conmen who rob politicians and businessmen of vast amounts of money by masquerading as CBI or Income Tax officials. Until the real CBI gets on their case.
The team of tricksters is led by a youngish man called Aju (Akshay Kumar) and an older man called Sharma-ji (Anupam Kher), with Rajesh Sharma and Kishore Kadam bringing up the rear (ably enough, though one dearly wishes both these stellar actors had more to do). Kher, for whom A Wednesday provided an increasingly rare chance to return to the real acting he’s capable of, is in top form again here, moving between smooth con and nervous old man with utter credibility. Kumar delivers a competent—if characteristically bland—performance, except when turning on that infuriating beatific smile he seems to have perfected with his portrayal of Krishna in 2012’s OMG Oh My God.
Jimmy Sheirgill and Divya Dutta make a rather fun police duo, but again, one longs for them to have meatier roles. Manoj Bajpayee, as the real CBI investigator who takes it upon himself to catch the impersonators, makes the most of every little detail his character is provided with. His Waseem Khan is acerbic and incorruptible, delivering each line with a piercing gaze and a sense of timing that makes him a scene stealer.
Opening with a heist in Lutyen’s Delhi, moving on to Calcutta’s Burra Bazaar and ending in Bombay’s Opera House, Pandey and editor Shree Narayan Singh have crafted a fast-paced film that keeps us engaged most of the time, though it does occasionally feel a bit thin on the ground—and a little too buffetted by a relentless background score. The sections that really jar are those in which we are spoonfed large doses of a syrupy Kajal Aggarwal-Akshay Kumar romance—unnecessary, badly acted and sugary enough to make you choke.
But the pleasures of Special Chabbis lie in the detail. The film recreates the universe of late ‘80s India both visually and in spirit, revelling in the production of a grimy Connaught Place pasted with Only Vimal ads, romantic meetings at Bandra bus stops under the once-familiar sign of Thril, hotel lobbies full of streaked marble and a Delhi full of empty roads punctuated by an occasional light blue Maruti 800. Vaishnavi Reddy’s art direction and Sunil Babu’s production design are attentive without being attention-seeking, almost entirely successful in making us forget that the world we are watching on screen has had to be artificially cleansed of the patina of the last 25 years.
They are aided by a screenplay in which the details of milieu are treated as integral to the unfolding of plot. To give just one example, it is only in a world without mobile phones that these heists could have been carried off in this manner—and Pandey thoroughly enjoys himself with this fact, inserting scene after scene where phone lines are physically cut or tapped in ways that seem almost endearingly non-virtual today. The false ceilings created to make the mammoth ministerial bungalows of Lutyen’s Delhi habitable manage to feature in the plot, as does some Doordarshan footage of a 1987 Republic Day parade featuring Rajiv Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh.
Special Chabbis is a perfectly enjoyable film about somewhat remarkable events. The fake-CBI heists of the 1980s could have been a key to a world in which it’s increasingly hard to tell the real from the fake, the original from the copy. This could have been a film about how everyone’s faking it, faking it until it’s real.
There are glimpses of that film here, such as when we hear that Aju had originally wanted to be a real CBI officer, or when we see the young men and women recruited for the last raid swiftly acquire the patina of power based on nothing but their own conviction that they deserve to rule. But this is not that film. There is texture here, but not enough heft. One walks away from Neeraj Pandey’s film wondering what Dibakar Banerjee might have done with it.