When it comes to spoon-feeding audiences, mainstream Bollywood is way ahead of the curve, and there are occasions where this tendency of the industry to test the patience with unnecessary exposition can be downright offensive. Therefore it was a rather pleasant surprise in Baby, when the audience anticipating a roaring rampage of rescue from Akshay Kumar ended up witness to a subverted trope where the supposed damsel in distress played by Taapsee Pannu ends up beating the daylights out of the crook they are pursuing. So it was a pleasant surprise when the prequel to Baby, exploring the origins of Taapsee’s character, Shabana, was announced. But is Shabana’s journey from schoolgirl to spy a worthy tale?
Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu) is a taciturn young woman with a lot on her mind. Dealing with a traumatic childhood involving an abusive father and a stint in juvenile prison has hardened her, and she’s thrown herself into her studies and martial arts lessons, even ignoring the gentle advances of her friend and long-time admirer Jai (Taher Shabbir). But when she finally manages to silence her demons, long enough to open her heart to Jai, a senseless act of violence threatens to send her spiralling into a vortex of vengeance. Will Shabana ever find meaning in her life? Will she even find peace? And most importantly, how did she go from here to becoming a part of the covert organization, Baby?
Just like Baby, Naam Shabana too starts off with a tense sequence portraying an operation on foreign soil, but then on, it goes into a totally different zone, exploring Shabana’s journey and the various horrors she’s had to face. Neeraj Pandey whose writing normally can’t be faulted is surprisingly slack here, and while Shivam Nair keeps things moving, making sure your attention doesn’t wander, you end up wishing for more, as the proceedings on screen are for the most, laughably simplistic. Compared to Baby which relentlessly focused on the mission at hand, and had some very well defined characters, while also maintaining a sense of tension and unpredictability right up to the climax, Naam Shabana is the cinematic equivalent of bowling a full toss to Sachin Tendulkar, you can predict almost exactly what shot he’s going to play there.
Taapsee Pannu who is just coming off a career defining portrayal of a victim of sexual harassment in Pink portrays the conflict within Shabana quite well, but the character itself needed some better writing making it seem like Taapsee’s on autopilot in some sequences. Manoj Bajpai’s dependable as ever as the ice-cool chief. Taher Shabbir and Natasha Rastogi are both fantastic in their tiny parts as Shabana’s friend and mother respectively, and make you wish they were around in more sequences. Prithviraj is absolutely brilliant as the unpredictable Tony, and portrays his part with the ease of a seasoned actor, in spite of some extremely inconsistent writing. The cast of Baby all show up in glorified cameos, with Akshay Kumar portraying a cinematic equivalent of MS Dhoni, only showing up to finish things up cleanly.
To sum it up then, Naam Shabana’s a rather enjoyable watch, in spite of its predictability. But it will leave you wishing for something more, as this was an opportunity for the makers to come up with something more complex and substantial, but it seems like they frittered it away, to focus on star-power instead.