Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Akshay Kumar, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa
Director: Shivam Nair
Bollywood filmmakers seem to be acknowledging a different, more disarming brand of power: a woman’s ability to unmake a man. Though it isn’t exactly new, the number of woman-centric roles is definitely growing. Therefore, after being experts at a tensile brand of quiet authority, where she would at best, rise to a crisis or would see to it that a crisis never arose without lifting a finger or by virtue of her sheer existence, she is seen as having her way, albeit by trying to prove herself no less than any man. In Naam Shabana, which is a prequel to the 2015 film Baby, producer Neeraj Pandey joins hands with director Shivam Nair and takes us through the ordeal of sexism and prejudice that women often get subjected to. The film explores the back story of Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu), who had a brief yet impressive cameo in Baby, and shows how she was roped in as a secret agent by R&AW. Just that, he allows Shabana to be the “hero” — a mixed martial arts expert — who also makes her devoted college friend, Jay, feel “safe” whenever he is with her.
Although Shabana lives a quiet existence with her single mother in Mumbai, attends college and kicks butt at karate classes with passion, she is no ordinary girl. Her stoical exterior reveals more than it hides about her alcoholic and wife-beater father’s devilish behaviour. She even kills her father after knocking him down once when he became uncontrollable and spent two years in a remand home too. She is also daring and audacious enough to take on any goonda who tries to mess with her. Her world comes crashing down when after getting proposed to by Jay on a dinner date, she encounters a bunch of disgustingly bad men who try to prove their might. She dares them, takes them on and loses her friend in the bargain. From then on begins her initiation into a secret agent’s gameplan, which she resolutely follows and begins to conform to all the rules led by the agents: mastermind Ranvir Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and later by Om Prakash Shukla (Anupam Kher), Feroze Ali Khan (Dannny Denzongpa), Ajay Singh Rajput (Akshay Kumar) and Virender Saxena.
To be honest, I expected this to be really cheesy and unsophisticated, and in certain areas it sure is. However, I must add that a female agent kicking butt can be thoroughly entertaining too. In some ways, it is also a lot more seriously entertaining than I initially gave it credit for. The only thing I didn’t really care for was the lack of carrying out of any credible plans that one would associate with such high-profile operation involving internationally known agents. And that spells doom for viewers too, particularly in the second half. Since till the time Shabana is expected to avenge the killing of Jay (who had also proposed to her the day he gets killed), it’s something that one goes along with her. The moment she gets inducted into the agency (I presume it is RA&W!) and gets to fight, kick, grab, toss, jump, pounce and punch or swing whosoever is willing to come her way, her knocks look orchestrated primarily to offer cheap thrills. Not to mention the most puerile plot that she has to be a part of. Imagine at one point, she is made to punch and smash the most dreaded gangster Tony (played with aplomb by Prithviraj Sukumaran), that too all by herself.
The agency has her whisked off to Kuala Lumpur after getting her trained by the force’s special operatives unit, and placed under the care of stern Ajay Singh with few clues to go by. The way Shabana must venture into the deal and wield her deadly skills against a dangerous group who seems all too determined to set the city suffer. As a spin-off Naam Shabana while exploring her back story shows how she was roped in as a secret agent. However, since it suffers heavily from Baby hangover, it just doesn’t move ahead with a plausible storyline. I’ll plead ignorance in claiming that I don’t know if there really was somebody by the name of Shabana, on whose story the film is based. It’s a film filled with girl power that too from only one who fights crime with guns, clubs, or sticks and smacks the crap out of assailants.
Pannu acquits herself well, but why does she have a mono expression face running through the film’s 148 minutes, one would wonder? Bajpayee too has limited scope and is constrained by the oddity that his role demands. It’s Akshay Kumar, who seems to be having fun even though he appears briefly. Anupam Kher looks ludicrous in his periwig. Shivam Nair had a bright idea on his hands: to create a convincing situation of a character whose identity and job have already been established earlier in the franchise. Wish instead of Neeraj Pandey, who is credited with story and screenplay besides wearing the producer’s hat, he could engage a good writer to flesh out believable sub-plots too!
The writer is a film critic and has been reviewing films for over 15 years. He also writes on music, art and culture, and other human interest stories....