Director: Shivam Nair
Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Manoj Bajpayee, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Akshay Kumar
At a running time of 148 minutes, Naam Shabana is 126 minutes too long. The only part that really matters in this Baby spin-off – written and very much designed by Neeraj Pandey (Baby, A Wednesday, MS Dhoni) – is the prelude to the bumbling plot. That is, why our grim protagonist is the way she is. As soon as we get into the how portion – the portion where Pandey does his usual thing of believing that his content is way cleverer than it actually is – all is lost.
When Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu) is established as a desensitized college-going Mumbai girl with major daddy issues (literally; she killed him) and a sincere to-be boyfriend, the film promises to be more of a psychological portrait than an action drama. Pannu spends a scene being vulnerable and showcasing her range: a tender phase scored to the kind of soft, foreboding song that invariably appears when a tragedy is around the corner. And that’s that.
Once the script starts trying to contrive an urgent situation plausible – and extravagant – enough to convince us that only she can save the day/world/gender/minority/religion/genre/cinema, Ian Fleming performs enough somersaults in his grave to win an Olympic gold medal. Back to the deafening background theme, self-important men and their self-important stone-faced strides, robotic voices, no-nonsense manners, important-sounding mission statements, Ramsay-parading-as-Bourne set pieces and right-wing jingoism under the veil of ‘defense at all costs’ philosophies.
It’s not so much about the political correctness or even the logic of Pandey’s concocted, wishful universes. One doesn’t expect world-rescuing sagas to sound feasible; the genre, by extension, is all about hyperbole and showcasing the “impossible” in context of the possible. But films like this one are neither astoundingly goofy nor shamelessly accurate. There are no jaw-dropping chases, intelligent sub-stories or elaborately designed stunts. The focus is so much on getting the job done that its rapid ordinariness begins to kill the suspension-of-disbelief grammar. As a result, instead of just letting us sit back and gape at the magic of inventiveness, it begins to tell viewers how it thinks – and no self-respecting action flick thinks at all – and in turn, how they should think.
There is nothing novel, other than the idea of a butt-kicking Muslim girl excelling in hand-to-hand combat and athleticism – which we’re reminded of repeatedly, by men, presumably to offset its dangerous ideology. In fact, this film tries to make sense so often that it defeats its own purpose of existing. The shadowy MI6-style ATS wing (led by Manoj Bajpayee, whose boss is ‘sequel’ Baby’s Danny Denzongpa) that recruits Shabana is omnipresent, Godly almost, and has cameras everywhere, modernly operating from decrepit mill compounds (everyone still uses a Blackberry; there’s a metaphor in there somewhere), cannot track down one big-shot terrorist, who is allegedly more wanted than Osama and Saddam combined. Why? Because the mysterious baddie has constructive surgery every year to change his appearance.
There is nothing novel, other than the idea of a butt-kicking Muslim girl excelling in hand-to-hand combat and athleticism – which we’re reminded of repeatedly, by men, presumably to offset its dangerous ideology
To justify this outrageously unglamorous reasoning, there is an entire sequence where an agent explains the painfully memorized technicalities of this surgical procedure to another, just so we understand that this is possible. I cannot overstate the stupidity of this scene, because they’re just so convinced it sounds intelligent. When will writers understand that Bollywood and medical terminology just don’t go together?
Shabana is employed because apparently she gives them access that male agents (Akshay Kumar, reprising his role as Ajay Rajput) can’t. That is, she can replace a lady patient in the same Malaysian hospital where mega-villain is having his next secret surgery. This is all I could gather from the much-decorated decision of sending her in, after a month of training, to dance with the sharks.
Whenever she makes a kill, she is led away roughly by Kumar (because…exit strategy specialist?), who holds her shoulder and pulls her out like a ragdoll as if she were a lost little girl being berated for aspiring to be an action hero.
There’s something about Indian minds trying to construct complicated globetrotting spy-thriller plots. It’s naïve. Almost cute, in a way desi students often end up twisting their own accents while interacting with Western kids. The startling self-seriousness is a loud result of overcompensating for a deeply inherent inferiority complex.
The language is ours, but all the intonations are foreign. We aren’t quite the country prone to imagining our own brown-skinned chaps stylishly blowing up corrupt embassies in name of ‘the empire’. We’d rather they loot a coal train or bank. We’ve come too far in this web generation to take ourselves seriously as suited messiahs and button-pressing sleuths. For instance, Agent Vinod, the character and name, made sense; but the texture he occupied, the devices he employed and his suave personality were all derivative. Ditto for Don 2.
Whenever she makes a kill, she is led away roughly by Kumar (because…exit strategy specialist?), who holds her shoulder and pulls her out like a ragdoll as if she were a lost little girl being berated for aspiring to be an action hero
The reason we – and everyone else – enjoy watching Bond, Bourne or Hunt do things the way they do is because of where they stand in context of their nation’s artistic sensibilities. They don’t do or think song-and-dance, which is why the heightened ideologies that power their spies and superheroes tend to be compelling for how freewheeling they are. It adheres to their showmen-or-nothing, go-for-broke fantasies.
Desi filmmakers can’t pass off such genres by tonally aping their counterparts – in a culture already predisposed to exaggeration. Using blue, cold filters in foreign locales, sweeping drone-induced aerial establishment shots and Russian dancers, can’t compensate for an obvious lack of imagination.
Naam Shabana, in a way, is a significant film. It serves as a blueprint of how to kill off an annoying franchise. God knows this global genre, bereft of originality (what are the chances ‘Baby 2’ is about a super-agent going rogue?) and loaded with remakes, needs this humbling reminder.
If this movie were a character in a Hollywood blockbuster, it’d be the geeky high-school girl making a fool of herself to impress the cooler peeps. When all it should do is stick to its syllabus, join the lacrosse team, study hard and perhaps become a world-class doctor – and not the one that solemnly spouts the term ‘retrograde amnesia’ in Hindi films.
Watch the trailer here: