Opening this week

Neeraj Pandey’s terrorism thriller Baby tells the Indian state how it should be done

A fictitious anti-terrorism unit races against the clock to foil a series of attacks on India.

Neeraj Pandey’s Baby is firmly in the mould of the Hollywood terrorism thriller, the one in which a small group of highly trained and coldly efficient government agents take down a dastardly and seemingly implacable enemy even as their bosses pace down corridors, stare hard at computer screens, run up gargantuan phone bills and stave off political pressure. Meanwhile, a wife and a child or two pine away at the dinner table, trying hard to ignore the empty chair in which once sat the patriarch who is now in a distant war zone and might return maimed or in a body bag.

The title refers to a fictitious off-the-books elite unit that moves with the stealth of the US Navy SEALs and the Mission: Impossible operatives and prevents bomb blasts and other such attacks on Indian sovereignty. The exercise is led by Feroze Ali Khan (Danny Denzongpa), the general who hunkers down in the tent while his soldiers thrust and parry on the battlefield. Khan’s secret weapon is Ajay (Akshay Kumar), a highly skilled and startlingly successful officer whose ability to somersault across borders and get results in a matter of hours ensures that Baby is both fiction and fantasy despite strenuous attempts to make the plot chime with the facts.

Like Nikhil Advani’s D-Day made two years ago, Baby creates a fictitious set-up that could have been real if only the Indian government had followed Hindi cinema’s prescriptions. D Day was about a fake attempt to bring a gangster modelled on fugitive underworld boss Dawood Ibrahim to India to stand trial. In Baby, the target is fundamentalist preacher Muhammad Rahman (Rasheed Naz), who appears to be a composite of Laskhar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar. Ajay’s efforts to foil Rahman’s plans take him to various countries, including Nepal and Saudi Arabia. As the clock ticks away and the bladders swell with anticipation and cola, Pandey orchestrates an engaging and agreeably preposterous version of such Hollywood films as Munich, Body of Lies, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.

Good Muslims versus Bad Muslims

The plot perfectly mirrors ongoing concerns about threats to India from Pakistan-based terror groups and the perceived soft response of the Indian state. Baby suggests that contrary to popular belief, India is perfectly capable of matching American standards of intelligence gathering, surveillance, interrogation and extra-judicial rendition. All that is needed is for Ajay and his fellow patriots, played by Rana Daggubati, Taapsee Pannu and Anupam Kher, to be cloned a few thousand times.

Pandey’s skill at making fantasies seem as credible as newspaper headlines were proven in A Wednesday, in which a common man shows the Mumbai police force how terrorism should be dealt with, and Special 26, a fictitious retelling of a jewellery heist. The filmmaker’s ability to write dialogue that is blunt as well as a blunt instrument serves him well in Baby. Akshay Kumar’s limited acting skills are all that are needed to portray a war machine whose only job is to press on without distraction, improvise when needed, and score big wins.

Pandey dials down the drama and reserves the jingoism that is intrinsic to such ventures for the movie’s “bad Muslims”. Muhammad Rahman’s linchpins, Taufiq (Jameel Khan) and Bilal (Kay Kay Menon), are not imports but local produce who spring out of a corrosive patch. Ajay reminds Taufiq that he describes his religion as “Indian” when he fills out forms that ask him to state his faith. Denzongpa’s dedicated bureaucrat is this movie’s answer to such rotten eggs as Taufiq and Bilal – the good Muslim who protects his fellow citizens and burns up his innards with sleeplessness and caffeine.

Stretched to breaking point

Pandey is having so much fun creating an anti-terrorism squad to rival, if not better, the real ones, that he overplays his hand. His confidence in mimicking the Hollywood formula is unmistakeable, but so is his tendency to over-explain and overwrite scenes. The movie spirals out of orbit in its extended Argo-style climax, in which the team’s lean and mean operation to grab a crucial terrorist in Saudi Arabia threatens to come undone. Up until this point, Baby is impressive enough, packed with witty dialogue, likeable characters, suspenseful moments, and a turn of events that will reassure viewers who despair that there aren’t enough real men and women in the government to do what it takes to keep the citizens safe.

When asked to sanction yet another potentially damaging cross-border escapade, a minister to whom Feroze has to present reports and updates asks in exasperation, “Do you think you are the Mossad?”

Baby’s reply is clear: Of course. After all, if Bollywood can, why can’t the Indian state?

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