Special Chabbis (2013)

Written by  //  February 11, 2013  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  5 Comments

In our daily lives, save for an infinitesimally small minority, we do mundane jobs that fill the bank account and the hours of the day. Our lives are lived out weekend to weekend until it is time to put up one’s feet and contemplate retirement. We reserve derring do, bravery, and nerve-shredding actions to the controlled realm of sports or the safety of fiction. The capacity to imagine alternate selves, to live lives we don’t, is perhaps a uniquely human trait. All fiction, be it literature, drama or cinema is escapist by definition. We are all seeking to escape from different things – our circumstances, our families, our jobs, our environment and fiction tells us there is an alternate (better?) world out there.

Special Chabbis takes this very human yearning and fleshes it out into easily Bollywood’s best “heist” film of all time. Very loosely based on real life incidents, it’s a story of four rather ordinary people who, using their wits and guts, outsmart the real thieves and thugs of our age – crooked netas and businessmen – posing as CBI cops or taxmen. The premise is as simple as it is brilliant; target someone who will never file a complaint and who’ll unhappily write it off as a business loss rather than explain the source of the income. It’s a modern day Robin Hood tale that appeals, at some level, to our sense of justice.

Where heist films in the past have contrived to add glamour and good looks (think Ocean’s 12 & 13, Bunty aur Babli, and ugh, the Dhoom movies) to a rather thin plot, Special Chabbis adds character and emotion to a rich and layered plot that gets its vice-like hold on you and doesn’t let go for two-and-a-half hours straight. Ajay (Akshay Kumar), Sharma (Anupam Kher), Iqbal (Kishore Kadam) and Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) are not supposed to be people you’ll necessarily remember for the rest of your life. In their “regular” lives they’re battling concerns that anyone can identify with – a seemingly doomed love affair, a daughter’s wedding, a nagging and demanding wife, or a large family to take care of.

Yet, once every two months or so, they get together, put on their costumes, forge documents, plot meticulously, and pull off a stunning caper against someone rich with lots to hide. Whatever else they may be, for those few days, they strut in immaculately pressed clothes, speak in clipped accents (dipping into the vernacular only when strictly required) and fearlessly slap people of any rank. Though set in pre-liberalization India, it’s the ultimate wish-fulfillment of post-2G India – break the corporate-government nexus with half a dozen well timed whacks on the faces of the smug bastards. Oh and also steal all their ill gotten gains in the process. (It’s obviously fantasy because in the era of round-tripping, tax havens and corporate structuring, no one actually keeps large bundles of cash in easy reach anymore. As certain tax officers found out recently.)

The “Special Chabbis” of the title comes from the twenty-six bright (and not-so-bright), (mostly) young men and women who sign up with the Gang of Four, believing them to be CBI officers, to help them with their biggest and last heist – robbing the biggest jewellery store in town (based on the real-life Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri Jewellers heist in Bombay). To be part of the Special Chabbis is a once-in-a-birth chance to be part of the CBI elite by going through an interview, a written test and a “practical” (which is, needless to say, the actual heist). When an ad says that the CBI is recruiting and is looking for someone – who just might be you – for action, adventure and adrenaline, wouldn’t you jump at the chance, brush up your CV, clean up your looks, and practice your best tough-guy/girl-naivete thinking it makes you look formidable?

Never mind that the actual CBI has actually laid out a trap for you.

(Obviously there’s a stunning twist ending which I’m not going to reveal here!)

*****

Neeraj Pandey, with Special Chabbis, joins the happily growing list of Indian directors who’re hitting that sweet spot between utterly crass commercial and the snooty inaccessible art-film circuit. A group of directors which includes Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Bannerjee, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Anurag Kashyap, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Gauri Shinde among others who thrive in the multiplex viewer market with tight scripts, well cast and directed films that don’t equate entertainment with dumbing down of content. May their tribe (and output) increase.

While Neeraj Pandey’s work so far consists of only two movies, “A Wednesday” and “Special Chabbis”, located as they are in two very different genres, they address the same theme; the common man fights back against a seemingly insurmountable enemy in his own little way, using his wits and superior intelligence, sometimes against the forces of the law which are supposed to do this in the first place. It is fantasy of course, asking us to imagine that somehow your everyday guy will be able to access cutting edge technology to beat the government or have the necessary intelligence gathering skills to plan an elaborate fake raid. Yet, it’s a fantasy firmly rooted in a reality – present day Bombay in the case of A Wednesday and 1980s India in Special Chabbis – that makes us suspend our disbelief enough to believe in it. (Neeraj Pandey’s 1980s India is also a hipster’s delight – sweater vests, typewriters, vintage Marutis and Lambrettas, all awash in an Instagram-esque sepia. )

*****

On the face of it Akshay Kumar seems obviously miscast among a lot of fine character actors. Yet one doesn’t actually mind since he seems to be back doing what is obviously his forte – comedy. Akshay Kumar is at his comedic best not when he’s trying to be funny (all his disastrously unfunny “funny movies”) but when he plays it straight allowing the situation and the circumstances to bring the laughs (Hera Pheri and his cameo in the otherwise idiotic Om Shanti Om). Here, there’s no slapstick, no weird bodily quirks, no linguistic deformity or any other contrived attempt at humour – he allows his body language, the situation and the dialogue to bring the humour out.

Anupam Kher, while hilariously miscast as the no-nonsense top cop in “A Wednesday”, returns to playing a somewhat hassled, on-the-verge-of-retirement-middle aged man caring for his ever-growing brood – in other words pretty much everything good that he has done in the last 15 years or so (Khosla ka Ghosla, Bend it Like Beckham, Speedy Singhs) Yet, give him the lines, give him his crew and his cream coloured bush-shirt and corduroy pants, and he suddenly becomes a no-nonsense government official of unimpeachable integrity and titanium strength testicular fortitude. (On a side note, it would be beyond brilliant if in a weird comic-type crossover, Sharma of Special Chabbis was actually Khosla of Khosla ka Ghosla!)

Every good heist film has a dogged representative of the law who, despite his many limitations (lack of imagination, foresight and charm) proves a formidable foe through sheer persistence and doggedness in never giving up the chase till the end. Manoj Bajpayee’s Waseem Khan is a CBI officer and all about what actual police work really is – doing the dull, obvious things until you get a breakthrough, and in the Indian context, the threat of torture to obtain information. He is, in some ways, the polar opposite of Tom Hanks’ Carl Hanratty in Catch Me if You Can – menacing, self-assured, and charismatic and yet, at the end of the day, a proper family man who gives his kid a joy-ride to the school bus and worries about paying his bills. He could easily be Sardar Khan’s less-lecherous long-lost brother, just on the right side of the law this time.

As with the leads, Pandey gets most of the casting of the supporting roles spot on – witness Tiku Talsania’s Porky Pig act as the  owner of the targeted jewelry store in Bombay. Jimmy Shergill, who always seems to have the burden of the world upon his shoulders anytime he’s required to carry a film, fits neatly into his small-ish role that though has him appearing throughout, though it gives him rather little to do on screen most of the time.

Like with “A Wednesday”, Neeraj Pandey has little space for women in Special Chabbis. In both films, they’re usually in the periphery or background – a side track to the main story about the tussle of wills between clever/devious men. Maybe it’s a serious flaw in his directorial ability and vision or perhaps he hasn’t yet found the right script with strong female characters. Either way, one hopes Special Chabbis turns out to be a runaway hit that allows him to do something slightly different just as well, the next time around.

Coda:

1. Actual raids are far depressing and less entertaining, as I’ve written before.

2. The real-life Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri Jewellers heist has never been solved.

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