Bollywood has been surprising me of late: I have seen more good movies come out in the past few years, and more frequently than I can remember. And my mental library of movies, foreign and domestic, spans several decades; if not by the dint of my years on this planet, then by the sheer man hours I've spent watching movies. Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann's epitaph is s = log w. Mine might be, "tried to spend life watching only good movies" (Now that's a scary thought. I hope my life amounts to more and those that I leave behind are considerate enough to enshrine their kind lies in my eulogy. On a practical note, what happens if one is cremated? Do they still get an epitaph? if so, what piece of land survives their memory?)
Flash forward to the current topic: I recently enjoyed the morally ambivalent heist caper "Special 26" (स्पेशल छब्बिस ) starring Akshay Kumar (अक्षय कुमार ), Manoj Bajpai (मनोज बाजपयी ), Anupum Kher (अनुपम खेर ) and Jimmy Shergil (जिम्मी शेरगिल ). It is perhaps a sign of the times that this movie resonates so well with paying audiences. Honest folk are portrayed as hapless, impecunious, wretched beings suffering the daily atrocities and injustices of a cruel society, while desperadoes who disrespect the rules and plunder the ill-gotten riches of the privileged corrupt are projected as paragons of success. The "system" shackles and extorts those that dare possess a moral compass, while audacious outlaws pervert the system and rule the roost. The fact that some of the movie's capers draw inspiration from India's crime history serves only to bolster the disconcerting and depressing hypothesis.
At face value, Special 26 is a heist comedy drama that is taut, at times intense, and almost always, engaging. The lead characters are not one-dimensional, but are carefully and artfully imparted depth and credence. They have distinct personalities and roles. The Thespians Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpai morph beautifully into their respective characters: their characters' excitement, intensity, gravitas, vulnerability, determination, joy, and despair are brilliantly subtle, and because of that, supremely evocative. Akshay Kumar tones down his goofiness and brings forth a Clooney-isqe pizzazz that is equal measure Dean Martin's Danny Ocean, and Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill.
The petulant arm chair movie critic me detected smoky undertones of the Edward Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, and Andy Garcia starrer "Confidence", and noticed hints of cinematic inspiration from the masterpiece that is The Illusionist (starring Edward Norton, Jessical Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell), and the subtle after taste of the original Ocean's Eleven (starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis. Jr). But the overall brew is definitely as Indian and robust as Masala Chai, Bhel Puri, Paapdi Chaat and Chana Masala (though thankfully, not all at once). The locales, the sub-stories, and the action sequences are decidedly Indian: you won't get to see a stunt involving a toppling auto rickshaw and an over-crowded bus elsewhere (Vijay Amritraj driven auto-rickshaws carrying womanizing British uber-spies needn't apply. Thai Tutktuk's conveying newer incarnation of said spies through sewer tube wormholes are excluded as well).
The fact that the story is set back in 1987, a time when land-line telephones were a concept still unknown to a large majority of the Indian populace, and when the hegemony of a socialist government ran unchecked, is made utterly believable by the use of appropriate props (clunky cars, bulky rotary dial phones, just to name a few) and relevantly dated attire. Clever use of computer graphics wizardry helps carry the suspension of disbelief a little further. CG is jarringly perceptible in only one instance, but mercifully it is in the one and only song, and thus the concomitant distraction is limited too.
What is perhaps more striking, to me, is the production value and the overall message, intended or not, of the film. That CBS media conglomerate (think MTV, Nickelodeon, Dora the Explorer, and Spongebob Sqaurepants) seems to be the lead producer, is in itself telling: the developing world is where the Occident find itself yet again, seeking untold riches.
What bothered me a little about the movie though, is the apparent pandering of lawlessness to the masses. An ivory tower commentator might be tempted to deride and chide the nexus of foreign media-conglomerates and Bollywood for eulogizing anarchy and crime through the lionization of crooks and con-men. A casual observer might argue that such depictions are, in the net, harmful to society since they seem to encourage desperadoes, while demoralizing the law-abiding, educated masses.
Contrary to the above, I am convinced that the success of such capers is more a result of art imitating life; more a result of popular demand than a concerted push to demoralize a country.
Truth be told, there is already plenty wrong to be dispirited about the Indian dream. The continuing social outrages, be they the unimaginably cruel rape of innocents on city streets, or the daily terrorist attacks, or the brazen murder of well heeled builders in broad daylight, or the perpetual pillaging of the entire country by corrupt politicians, have desensitized the general population. I contend that the reason such movies do well is because they appeal to the sub-conscious helplessness of each and every Indian. I believe Indians are innately aware of the law of the jungle: every one is Mowgli, the sole human child amongst animals, and is constantly struggling to ward off the Sher Khan of a predatory society. Amidst the decay and unsanitary environs, it is quite literally, the Lord of the Flies.
Any fantasy that shelters the weary souls, even momentarily, from the despair is reflexively appealing. Any nostrum that promises escape from an unjust and stifling system is accepted as elixir. It is not the movie that promulgates law-breaking, but rather the yearning of the masses to be free to live their lives in peace and security.
Yeah, it was a good movie.