Early in director Shivam Nair’s Naam Shabana, the eponymous heroine asks her beau why he loves her. He replies: I doubt if any man has said this to a woman before, but I love you because being with you makes me feel safe. Since there is no logical or biological reason why the fellow should assume that no man feels emotionally safe with a woman, I assume the allusion here is to a sense of physical security inspired by the feisty Shabana’s exceptional martial arts prowess.
It is an odd reason to love another human being. More to the point, it is the first of many unsatisfactory responses to the question why repeatedly crying out to be addressed by this film.
Here is one why, not from Shabana but about her: Why does that uninspiring chap Jai love Shabana though she is so unappealing and so listless except when in a sporting ring?
There are more whys coming up later in this review.
Taapsee Pannu plays Naam Shabana’s Shabana Khan, a college student and kudo practitioner who is recruited by a top-secret, off-the-grid Indian intelligence agency. Shabana lives in Maharashtra with her mother. Jai is not the only one with an eye on her. An invisible someone is tailing this beautiful, middle-class woman from a congested Mumbai colony. When tragedy strikes her life, we are told that the unnamed agency was tracking her as a potential recruit.
Naam Shabana is a prequel to the 2015 hit Baby directed by Neeraj Pandey starring Akshay Kumar, with Pannu in a small but memorable supporting role. The new film – produced by Pandey – tells us her character’s story preceding the events in Baby. Since Pannu’s performance and her evident skill in Baby’s action scenes drew audience and critical acclaim in 2015, it makes sense that someone thought of making a film placing the spotlight on her.
Now if only they had devoted time to building up her character and developing a credible story around her. Although Pannu is first-rate in Naam Shabana’s many fight scenes, her acting is off the mark in the rest of the film and Shabana is half-baked. In the effort to portray a woman who suppresses her feelings, Pannu ends up delivering a bland performance except when she is indulging in fisticuffs. When she is throwing punches, she is captivating. When she is not participating in a tournament or bashing up some evil wretch, she is dull.
Southern Indian audiences know Pannu well. Hindi viewers got the full blast of her acting talent in last year’s Pink. She falls short of expectations in Naam Shabana, a victim of inadequate writing and direction.
Like her, the story too never rises above being a promising concept. The team of Naam Shabana – in the footsteps of Akira’s team last year – seems to have been more focused on making a film that can be labelled “woman-centric”, rather than creating a woman character of some worth. In the absence of an engaging protagonist and well-thought-out script, what we get are efficiently choreographed action sequences, a slick surface and a pace that is impressive at first until it adds up to nought when glaring loopholes and many unanswered whys start calling out.
Why, for instance, was Shabana picked by the agency? Considering that there are scores of fiery, aggressive, driven, earnest female athletes enrolled in the country’s national and private sports programmes and clubs, what is the defining quality that distinguishes her from other such gifted women?
Her religion, we are told, is an important qualification, since it gives her perspective that no politician – Hindu or Muslim – has. (The point is raised in the film’s one genuinely contemplative conversation which, by the way, is over too soon.) Could that be all though? What else?
Which brings us to other whys.
Why on earth is she pulled out of her training to join one of the most important intelligence operations in the world? Sure she is good, but that good? There is no evidence to prove that she is even India’s best, so why why why?
Why would a covert arm of the government of India bet everything on a rookie?
Why would a much-wanted international criminal not confine himself to fortified and isolated residential and medical facilities, considering that for years he has gone to great lengths to protect himself from multiple security and intelligence agencies?
Why would such a man turn stupid one fine day, if not for the convenience of Shabana and her colleagues, and because Pandey – who has written Naam Shabana – could not think of a more intelligent idea to get him in captivity?
Why would an individual who has been at pains to hide his identity from the aforesaid agencies then reveal it at the drop of a hat under duress, instead of having a well-planned, carefully conceived lie at hand to deceive them?
Why, when your best man is available, would you assign the most crucial job in a crucial group assignment to Shabana, an untested newcomer? I mean, I get that you want to prove that you are indeed making a “woman-centric” film, but for heaven’s sake could you not come up with a believable reason for the team leader’s decisions beyond your film’s projected USP?
Women can do without such condescension. And Pannu can do without superficial female characters on her resume.
Akshay Kumar has a cameo in Naam Shabana as Ajay, the leading man from Baby. His character is not half as cool as the makers seem to think he is. And when he is around, through Ajay’s behaviour and authoritarian body language, Pandey and Nair unwittingly betray the male-centricity of their worldview.
Anupam Kher is here too, in a brief role as the unconvincing, unfunny tech wiz Shuklaji who too we first saw in Baby. Manoj Bajpayee as Shabana’s boss and Danny Denzongpa as his boss are both so-so.
Malayalam superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran as one of the villains of the plot is handsome as ever and trying his best. The wilting film perks up when he enters the picture, but the big twist in that passage can be seen coming from a mile and frankly, there is only so much that an actor’s natural charisma can do in the face of writing that lacks conviction.
Here is a thought. Next time you make a film supposedly revolving around a woman, please do so because you have a great story to tell, not because female-led cinema is a hot current trend.
And next time you wish to make a prequel to a hit, again, please do so because you have a substantial story to tell, not because you want to cash in on a successful brand.
A Goof Up Spotted By Me: Trivia buffs FYI, a running counter on a CCTV in Naam Shabana reveals that the film is set in 2011, yet a television monitor moments later is shown tuned in to a news channel called CNN News18 reporting on Manmohan Singh. Of course Singh was PM back then, but for the record, CNN News18 went by the name CNN-IBN in 2011. The name was changed in 2016.
CAST: Taapsee Pannu, Akshay Kumar, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa.
DIRECTION: Shivam Nair
DURATION: 2 hours 28 minutes