Cast: Akshay Kumar, Danny Dengzongpa, Rasheed Naz, Anupam Kher, Kay Kay Menon, Tapsee Pannu, Rana Daggubati
Direction: Neeraj Pandey
I’d be lying if I said that after I heard of Operation Geronimo, I didn’t think and wish that India too had the calibre and audacity to carry out similar operations and bring home our enemy number one, a slot that contains at least two names. It so transpires that writer-director Neeraj Pandey thought similarly and has now erected an elaborate edifice to make that wish come true, at least on screen.
His 'Baby' brings home one of India’s Enemy No. 1, but in Pandey's telling India doesn’t go in to get him. Instead, while it is in pursuit of a smaller fry, it stumbles upon the trophy terrorist, quite literally. Gobsmacked by its own good luck, it hesitates, pauses, raising the tempo of a lumbering film, and then finally proceeds to put a smile on our tense faces.
Neeraj Pandey, director of 'A Wednesday' and 'Special 26', clearly has a fascination for the sarkari world of lal-battis. He likes teams and bosses in sync; young men who operate with precision, and operations that are slick and quick. We too have also come to expect a sharp cadence to his Ambassadors that screech to a halt, to men in collar-shirts rushing to take out a target, because when you keep doing something, your skills usually get honed.
But something seems to have gone wrong with 'Baby'. Pandey seems to have lost his rhythm. Though 'Baby' is very firmly located in reality – in the emotion and politics of post 26/11 India which was angry, felt slighted and impotent, when the intelligence and security network was shammed and the nation stunned — and seeks to exploits that very real need we all felt for men who are effective in keeping us safe with decisive and deadly action, its own operations are ridiculously childish and amateurish.
'Baby' tells the story of a khufia unit created for five years to find and destroy any threat to India. It's set in India 2013, when the unit is on its last leg and its population has dwindled. Just four officers are left — Ajay (Akshay Kumar), Jai (Rana Duggabati), Priya (Tapsee Pannu) and Shukla (Anupam Kher) — and the boss, Feroze Ali Khan (Danny Dengzongpa).
They are on their last mission — to thwart terror attacks which involve Waseem Khan (Sushant Singh), Bilal (Kay Kay Menon), Maulana Mohammad Rehman (Rasheed Naz). The film rouses fear by picking a target as vulnerable and real as a DLF mall in Delhi, and by fashioning Maulana Muhammad Rehman after Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the LeT chief. Only the fabulous Pakistani actor is more, much more menacing. Like Saeed, the United States has announced a bounty of $10 million on Rehman, and like Saeed, Rehman rouses a congregation by talking of Indian occupation of Kashmir, and Americans in Pakistan.
This is American style conjuring of victimhood, creating and then playing on a besieged psyche from whose ashes will rise heroes.Unfortunately, the Indian heroes who rise are duds. Ajay's (Akshay Kumar) own family doesn’t know what he does, where he goes. He’s an officer of the Government of India whose existence the Indian government will deny the moment he is caught. Yet this supposedly shadow figure has fisticuffs with another Indian agent gone rogue in the open in Istanbul, prances around Mumbai with cops and all, takes calls of his boss while being held captive in another nation.
This idiocy turns the yarn of threat and saviours being spun into complete bulls***. It cannot work if the basics are not in order. And they aren't. Surely our directors, unlike our security and intelligence agencies, can pull off operations that are slick, believable and keep us feeling safe. Maybe, but Pandey can't. There are such obvious and glaring flaws in the operations that you wonder if everyone was sleeping while the camera was rolling.
The film dramatises chases but then follows them up with fallow scenes, long sequences where nothing is happening. The quick pace is killed by this aimless gazing of the camera and leads to spells of stupifacation. Some operation are so flawed and tacky that instead of feeling invigorated by it you feel relieved that these stupid men are not in charge of anything.
All this men on mission nonsense can’t work if the ruse is rubbish. And it is. 'Baby' is also marred by careless scripting and shoddy, at times silly, direction. Pandey’s 'Baby' is on a bigger, grander scale than his earlier films. Yet he gives us characters who are sketched with dots.
They are all generic people. In fact, that’s what Shukla (Anupam Kher’s character) points at when he calls Ajay and Jai, "Tarzan and Hulk". We know nothing about them, don't know what they think, feel, and hence feel nothing for them.
Pandey, the director and script-writer, leaves it to the characters to introduce themselves in suchlike statements:
Ajay: “Tumhein yaad nahin, main kuch bhi kar sakta hoon”. From this we must construe that he is a killer machine who will spare no one when it comes to doing his duty.
Bilal: “Kasab se zayada kare hain hum-ne”. From this crumb we must conjure up not just hate and loathing, but also visions of this morally-repugnant man’s plans to kill us all.
The characters run on the reputations and past glories of the actors and stars. What they speak, thus, sounds phoney, which would have been laughable if it weren’t so boring. And in any case, the film is so obsessed with Akshay Kumar, that everyone else’s screen time is weirdly reduced to “special appearances”. Akshay, sadly, is neither agile nor quick. He’s in some sort of a sulk. As if men and women who work for desk ki raksha are banned from smiling. He operates in a bubble of solem air which keeps us from connecting with him.
There’s another serious problem with the film.
It is about an operation that involves Islamic terrorism from India and abroad. But 'Baby' is so self-conscious and desperate to be politically correct, that it brings up Gujarat riots, Hindutwa, saffron politics that is alienating the minorities. All very well. But then it gives itself away when it delivers its one and only seeti-walla dialogue that makes religious identity a problem.
All this, of course, gets forgotten when the film twists. Thereon, for the last 10 or 15 minutes of 'Baby', it keeps you on the edge and sends you off feeling happy. But, too little, too late Pandey has written the story, script and directed 'Baby'. Sometimes another pair of eye, another brain isn’t such a bad idea.
Watch the trailer here: