Here’s a question that if you answer correctly, will immediately qualify you for an interview with India’s top-secret agency – it (the agency, not the question) is beyond the purview of all the listed, government-sanctioned ones, ostensibly craftier and more effective than all the armed forces put together. Ready? Here goes:
You’ve caught the only link to one of the world’s deadliest villains, Michael (Denzil Smith), Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran) – the latter captured at his tony villa with a bikini-clad girlfriend. You tie him to the chair and proceed to beat him nice and proper, demanding to know where Michael is. Tony refuses to budge. You pummel him more. Then, he asks you to stop, so he can relieve himself, and then come back and submit himself to more beating. What do you do?:
A: Tell him he’s going nowhere, he can do whatever he wants, right there.
B: Ignore his request and continue to bork his face with all you have.
C: You cut open his shackles (not untie, mind you, but cut), give him a hand to walk him to the loo; then, let him close the door so he can enjoy his privacy, and all but attend on him, stopping short of holding a towel for him when he comes out.
I know, right? But to qualify for this fearful and fearless agency, you’d choose option C. Believe it or spook, but that’s what agent Aseem (Zakir Hussain) does, and he seems to be a veteran (no, not at managing public toilets.) And you wonder right there and then – why did boss Ranvir Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) make poor Shabana Khan (Tapsee Pannu) go through the ordeal and rigors that she did, if all that was going to eventually come down to nature’s call? Is it because she was seemingly the only woman Singh had recruited so far, and hence had to prove herself doubly more? Glass ceiling, anyone? I’d have thought I was reading too much into director Shivam Nair and writer and co-producer Neeraj Pandey’s script foible, but hang on – just before Tony’s captured, you see Aseem and two other agents making their way to the Tony villa. You notice not their guns, nor the splendid greenery that awns yonder. You look worriedly at two of the gents’ paunches, bouncing gently but surely on the grass-run, and pray that they don’t have to squeeze in through fences or windows. That’d surely mean beer belly-up for the mission. So, why did Shabana have to be so super fit, while her seniors in the agency were mobile storage units for transfats and alcohol companies?
But you overlook this sloppy slip, for the most part, Naam Shabana is quite a satisfying thriller. And the entire credit goes to Tapsee Pannu. For, it is she who carries this enterprise on her brave, and for the most part, lone shoulders. The movie is a solid thought on paper, zooming into director Neeraj Pandey’s earlier movie, the straight-as-arrow-but-effective thriller, Baby – where, Shabana was a pivotal character in a tense face-off in Nepal. Here, you’re taken into her past, and are privy to what made her the cold-as-ice killing machine in Baby. Based in Mumbai, the story’s based sometime in 2011 – given away very sneakily in a security-camera capture shot, and you’re shown how Shabana ekes out a simple existence in one of the by-lanes of a Muslim community, studying Second Year during the day, and training for martial arts in the evening. She’s got a circle of friends, and amongst them, one who’s smitten by her (a likeable act by Taher Shabbir.)
In a scene that’ll move you despite you thinking otherwise, Tapsee Pannu struggles between her emotional defenses and her mask, and as she loses, her expressions break open up a flood, her bravado façade crumbling, much to her boyfriend’s and your horror.
Later, as Shabana faces a horrifying tragedy, her mask quickly comes on, except when she’s alone and it’s only then you realize that Pannu has managed to snag your attention, your emotions, and she’ll take you with her all through. Director Nair uses drone cameras very effectively to capture Mumbai’s darker and steelier sides, and in a very engaging scene, where Ranvir Singh directs Shabana to carry out a mini-mission to prove herself, he and Pannu steal the show. After she’s plunged her mission successfully, in a lithe and swift movement in a crowded lane, look at Tapsee – a calibrated mixture of relief and triumph, all the while executing a brisk walk; while in Bajpayee’s eyes, just a shimmer of vindication. There’s more of superb performance by the actor – when she does extract her revenge, you want to grit your teeth and applaud her.
I repeat myself, but Naam Shabana is Tapsee Pannu’s show through and through. She’s deadly and superb in the action sequences, her eyes seemingly dead, but actually a fascinating pool of manic focus and grit. And when she does let you in, albeit temporarily, you want to comfort her, but there’s no time, for she quickly bounces back as the avenger and the protector.
Naam Shabana also boasts of very solid and stolid support from Manoj Bajpayee, he making look even the most ridiculous of his asks and scenes very believable and assuring. Virendar Saxena is his usual self, removing the dis from belief and making his role work. Akshay Kumar, to his credit, while proving his inimitable action chops, keeps away from the limelight – even, where he offers a laughable explanation to why Shabana is required for the climactic mission – and does a fabulous job of chaperoning her through after each mission. Prithviraj Sukumaran is good as the villain, though he seemed a tad too starry for me. Anupam Kher is a delight as he briefly reprises his wise-cracking role from Baby. And why oh why is the so very talented Zakir Hussain being wasted in such bumbling and fumbling roles?
The background score by Sanjoy Chowdhury doesn’t spell restraint at all. While someone seems to have gifted him a new drum-set in the first half, he’s absolutely thrilled to play his theme for Baby in a loop later. The soundtrack by Rochak Kohli offers the lovely Rozana, sung oh-so-beautifully by Shreya Ghoshal, but for the most part, the songs do nothing for the movie or for you, remixing at one point, even Bappi Lahiri’s Zubi Zubi lift off from Modern Talking.
There’s a scene in Naam Shabana when Shabana’s boyfriend tells her why he loves her: “I feel safe when you’re around”, he says. You laugh, but not in derision, and not just in cutesy delight, but in hope – when that’ll actually be a truism for us and our women. In the meanwhile, if you don’t believe Shabana’s boyfriend, just give her an unwanted tap – and see the power as she kicks butt.
Naam Shabana is rated UA (parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s lots of violence, broken bones, and anatomical damage.
Director Shivam Nair Running Time 2h 28 min
Writer Neeraj Pandey
Stars Tapsee Pannu, Manoj Bajpayee, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Akshay Kumar
Genres Action, Crime, Mystery
Watch the trailer of Naam Shabana here: