Synopsis – This Spin-off from Baby (2015) provides the back-story of intelligence agent Shabana, and chronicles how she becomes a spy.
My Take – Back in 2015, writer/director Neeraj Pandey‘s spy thriller ‘Baby‘ surprised everyone because of its different content which had a good mixture of realistic and fictional world by showcasing how the spies of our country in a different manner and that too without any fancy gadgets or glamorous girls or a cheesy super villain. Unlike most films of the genre, Baby took a single-minded in its approach to servicing the plot elements and took itself seriously in a good way while avoiding songs and resisting the jingoistic rhetoric. However, among the whole mix of pure awesomeness a single managed to stand out, a scene which the character, Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu), a female employee of what is referred to as The Agency (actually the Research and Analysis Wing) in the film breaks out into a surprising action mode. The scene – which initially starts off as pure self-defense turns purely violent when it becomes imminent that the accused, Wasim Khan (Sushant Singh), is not going to go down easily. The scene and the character, created only for its main protagonist, Ajay (Akshay Kumar) to use as filler in reaching his goal, easily stood out and looking at the audience’s reaction someone in the producers’ office thought – people really wants to see more of her and know her story. Receiving a film which focuses mainly on Shabana and her journey, there is a high amount of excitement and expectations related to it mainly as other characters from ‘Baby‘ along with superstar Akshay Kumar show up in supporting roles. The prospect of revisiting that character in a film that puts her front and centre of its story is an appealing one no doubt. But as it turns out this film– never mind how you describe it; as a prequel, a spin-off, or an origin story – is not half as impressive as I wish it could have been. The spin-off movie, written by Pandey and directed by Shivam Nair, has a solid premise – personal vendetta being channeled into national duty, but the film is undermined by an ordinary narrative, deafening background score, bloated running time (147 minutes, including songs) and the belief-beggaring missions that mark Shabana’s evolution from a studious teenager into a killing machine. However, despite the missing sophisticated filmmaking of Baby, in comparison to most of the appalling releases Bollywood comes up with every week, this Shivam Nair directed film is independently engaging.
Taking place before the events of ‘Baby’, the story follows Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu), a solemn-faced Muslim girl with a dark past. Now Living with her widowed mother in Mumbai, Shabana is doing well in college while training for martial arts with a mind to represent the country in the future, her days of misery seem in the past, mainly due to the presence of her college mate/best friend Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala) in her life. Finally proposing to her on his birthday, everything seems to be going right, until on their way back, Shabana and Jai become a target of eve teasing by a couple of hooligans, which leads to a fight in which Jai gets killed. Devasted, clueless and angry at the system for not finding justice, Shabana lunatically starts looking for ways revenge to Jay’s untimely death with nothing wane, until she receives a call from Ranvir Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), who claims to be a part of a powerful government based organization and promises to help Shabana find Jai’s killers. In order to share the information, Ranvir also strikes a deal with Shabana, where she has to join their organization. After some initial training, she gets to be part of risky, sometimes life-threatening operations especially one which involves helping Ajay (Akshay Kumar) take down Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), a dreaded arms dealer. The film constantly runs on two levels. The back-story to the espionage drama is bolstered by the heroine’s constant wrestle with her conscience. Shabana wants to let us into her feelings, but the minute we accept her invitation, she clams up. The two halves of the narrative are almost like two different films, both equally irresistible, but constructed under differing circumstances. The first half is devoted to building a relationship for the loner heroine with college mate who won’t take no for an answer, and then dismantling her hope for love. The second-half constructs a brisk bracing spy thriller with a nasty international villain set up as a target; it is here that the action explodes on the screen with optimum impact. However, the problem at the root of this film is that it literally offers nothing new, other than the idea of a woman who knows her way around a fight. Neeraj Pandey as the producer, screenplay and dialogue writer of the film conjures up a familiar universe, yet blame it on his easy going approach at a scripting which surprisingly is not interested in introducing the special powers of Shabana and what makes her so different that the special intelligence agency is following her like a spy for more than a year and when Shabana is finally roped in, all Chief Ranvir Singh has to say is that women are born spies (Yup! That’s it), plus it doesn’t help that director Shivam Nair (Ahista Ahista, Bhaag Johnny) doesn’t inherit Pandey‘s penchant for surprises and twists, as a big twist involving the identity of the chief bad guy can be spotted from a mile away. This one, like Pandey’s own films A Wednesday, Special 26 and Baby, creates a fictional parallel universe in which the rules that bind Indian society together do not matter. These rules have apparently caused havoc, and it is time for Indians to sign the new employment contract and hand over their strings to their bosses to be yanked this way or that. Bajpayee’s character controls Shabana through his cell phone and Bluetooth devices from a room filled with closed circuit television screens. He is watching everybody, and Shabana proves to be a good addition to this surveillance state, which is less reassuring than sinister. Shabana is athletic, trained in martial arts, subservient, cold, ruthless, and, conveniently enough, has a sad-sack back story to justify her personality.
Plus, any successful espionage film needs a villain either deliciously dastardly or frighteningly omnipotent to make the plot contrivances acceptable. This one has Malayalam superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran as Tony, a smug drug dealer and weapons supplier who is barely convincing as one of the most wanted men on the planet. Tony is neither bright nor malevolent enough to earn Shabana her first real collar. The film touts its heroine as a homegrown feminist who can match men for punch, but the plot makes it too easy for Shabana to track down Tony. Making matters worse for the film are the songs which are tinnitus inducing. As the story drags, the songs make it lengthier. The editing is sharp but the songs, barring Rozana, completely stall the narrative. It is quite difficult to not compare this film with Baby, while the latter had some moments which served as the highlight, there is no such scene in the former that bowls one over. Despite the subtlety mentioned above and some of the character nuances work. Shabana is introduced as a woman who will not be wronged even if she is not entirely right through a sequence rather than a voiceover, that in itself is fresh, and whatever the flaws, Neeraj Pandey’s crowd pleasing script and Shivam Nair’s narration manages to hold the audience interest with the required adrenaline rush despite being marred by predictability and noticeable cinematic liberties. A big reason for that is the presence of remarkable action sequences which top notch and it’s due to these scenes you are glued into the movie, especially the ones involving Pannu engaging in hand-to-hand combat in several well-executed sequences. The film shares several qualities with its origin film Baby: a fantasy of an efficient intelligence service that goes after the enemies of the state with guts but no expectation of glory; business-like officials; a high kill rate; laconic heroes and heroines who sit around all day waiting to be summoned. Pandey’s predilection for righteous justice has created a sub-genre of movies about real and imagined victories in the new battlefields of the modern world – the hotel room, the nightclub, and tourist-friendly capitals. Evil is hiding in plain sight, but our Indian heroes are working on it behind the scenes, Pandey suggests in his films. Perhaps the film needed to have embraced this logic more strongly. Tapsee Pannu, who was memorable in last year’s legal drama Pink, does complete justice to the part. Pannu’s blank eyes, minimal expressions and monotonous dialogue delivery perfectly convey Shabana’s unblinking embrace of her new life and at no point does she go overboard. Tapsee gets ample chance to put her martial arts training to use, frankly it is great fun to see a woman kick some serious butt and she manages to do it convincingly. Prithviraj Sukumaran as form-changing villain Mikhail has been given a raw deal but still manages to shine through on some moments. Manoj Bajpayee as the “agency” supervisor spends most of his time mouthing instructions to Taapsee, there isn’t much there for him but he gives us no reasons to complain either. Akshay Kumar is likable in his extended cameo. Anupam Kher again manages to tickle the funny bones with his tiny part. Danny Denzongpa also makes an appearance and makes one wonder why he doesn’t appear on screen more often. Madhurima Tuli & Murli Sharma too have a scene. Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala and Elli Avram do well in their small parts. On the whole, ‘Naam Shabana’ is a wasted opportunity which despite some brilliant fight scenes and good performance is just not compelling enough.
Directed – Shivam Nair
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 147 minutes