In a film that is otherwise thoroughly entertaining (and in a positive sense), ‘Naam Shabana’ does pose that one mystery to the audience – why Shabana? This is the story of a reserved young Muslim woman being inducted into a national spy agency and her first case as field agent. She asks her boss, no other than a sharp and crisp Manoj Bajpayee, in their very first meeting, whether her religion had something to do with her recruitment. Manoj says that it would be a ‘perk’ and give them extra ‘access’ in certain zones. Well, we didn’t see any of that in this movie. Islamic terror groups had been under fire in ‘Baby’, but there was nothing peculiar to Shabana’s religion that gave her an extra edge. Naam Shabana. Par kyun? Of course, the director may quip back, kyun nahin?
‘Naam Shabana’ is the prequel to Neeraj Pandey’s acclaimed action flick ‘Baby’. Pandey is the scriptwriter here, the director is Shivam Nair. The story is fairly simple. Shabana Khan (Tapsee Pannu) lives with her mother (Natasha Rastogi) in South Mumbai. Her life seems to be revolving around college, Kudo tournaments, and a boy from her class likes her. He tells her of his feelings on his birthday, and is rewarded by a confession of her dark past. Shabana had unwittingly killed her drunkard, abusive father to protect her mother and spent two years in a remand home. She also shows a certain tenderness towards the boy, which ends tragically as he is killed that night by a drunk reveller who stalked the duo with his friends. Shabana is assisted in her revenge by a mysterious ‘agency’, for which she has to work in return of information on the boy’s murderer. Thereafter, she is trained to be an agent and assigned her first case, where she tracks, nabs and kills an arms dealer (Prithviraj Sukumaran), along with a senior agent (Akshay Kumar).
There are a few incongruities that show carelessness. Shabana packs a stroller suitcase for her training, but gets down at the venue with a small bag. She steps out of Koolar Café at Matunga East directly into a crowded street in a separate location. Easy on the eye for those who don’t know the city, but an eyesore for patrons of this immensely popular Mumbai café. Where is this unbelievably safe location from where Anupam Kher, the technical ‘help’ operates? How come no one saw/heard two murders in the first sequence in Vienna, especially when they happened in an alley between two buildings? Award winning cinematographer Sudhir Palsane must have given more than aerial and typical ‘city skyline’ shots to editor K. Praveen to establish the many ‘phoren’ locations. Why not use something else? The van with RAW agents followed the villain close at heels while moving towards his plush villa at Kuala Lumpur. How come he never noticed this very noticeable white van trailing him?
If we drop our guard and sit back to enjoy the movie, it’s not too bad for escaping the summer heat for 2 hours and 27 minutes. For some strange reason best known to themselves, most film critics are busy bashing Tapsee for being too wooden. But why should a seriously tensed yet focused, reserved yet hot headed character have to flutter her eyelashes and coo around when that has absolutely no space within this story? Demanding an emotional overflow wherever a woman protagonist is involved has become so common for us that we want it anyway, whether there is a requirement for it or not. There is also a great deal being made of Akshay Kumar’s rescue of Tapsee in a particular scene. He would have been instructed to do the same if the newbie were a male instead of a dishy young girl. Similarly, handing a female over to Tapsee for interrogation is only a natural choice considering that she is a greenhorn on the job. On the other hand, Neeraj Pandey could have spent some time on why Tapsee is a good choice in a dangerous mission to nail a long absconding kingpin who has killed more than one agent. Is it easy just because she is new and therefore expendable? Or does Manoj Bajpai’s character want to try relying on her sportswoman instincts? A few lines (worth only a few seconds) could have given Manoj’s gamble a dark and interesting twist.
There is an announcement at the beginning of the film that characters from ‘Baby’ have been used. For those who had watched that film, ‘Naam Shabana’ is more fun as they will recognise stock dialogues as well, including Akshay Kumar’s famous ‘Main conference mein hoon’. When Akshay and a well-built baddie take off their shirts before a fist fight, ready laughs greet this dig at Salman style ‘dishoom dishoom’.
In short, ‘Naam Shabana’ has a neatness around it that might be worth a multiplex ticket, though not an evening show perhaps. It’s always good to see Bollywood reign in a bit on its usual volcanic outpouring of emotions and obsession with romance. Let’s see if Mr. Pandey has it in him to grow this into a franchise.