Naam Shabana has several spies with courage, obedience and the ability to maintain a double life, but it lacks a true sense of stealth. There is the sequence in which Ajay (Akshay Kumar), the veteran intelligence operative sent to assist the titular heroine on a mission, makes his grand entry onto the scene. Ajay crashes through the window of the hotel room where Shabana (Taapsee Pannu) has scalped her first victim – and proceeds to take the rookie agent out though a connecting door.
Could Ajay not have slipped into the room through the connecting door in the first place and sneaked away unnoticed with Shabana? Isn’t that the whole point of espionage – to be unobtrusive, under the radar, and, generally speaking, secretive?
Shabana first popped up as a minor character in thriller specialist Neeraj Pandey’s 2015 movie Baby, as an employee of what is referred to as The Agency (actually the Research and Analysis Wing). The spin-off movie, written by Pandey and directed by Shivam Nair, has a solid premise – personal vendetta being channeled into national duty. But the movie is undermined by the slowburn narrative, deafening background score, bloated running time (148 minutes, including songs) and the belief-beggaring missions that mark Shabana’s evolution from a studious teenager into a killing machine.
Shabana gets hired only after she embraces her inner vigilante. A voice over the phone (Manoj Bajpayee) tells the grieving young woman whose boyfriend has died in an attack by goons that if she successfully gets the attackers, she can graduate from murdering for personal reasons to killing for the nation.
Is this R&AW’s employment pitch these days? It’s not a bad one, and if applied off screen, will see no dearth of applicants.
Shabana’s unnamed boss believes that Indian policing is weak, politicians are contemptible and procedure is for sissies. Naam Shabana, like Pandey’s own films A Wednesday, Special Chhabis and Baby, creates a fictional parallel universe in which the rules that bind Indian society together do not matter. These rules have apparently caused havoc, and it is time for Indians to sign the new employment contract and hand over their strings to their bosses to be yanked this way or that. Bajpayee’s character controls Shabana through his cellphone and Bluetooth devices from a room filled with closed circuit television screens. He is watching everybody, and Shabana proves to be a good addition to this surveillance state, which is less reassuring than sinister. Shabana is athletic (she is trained in kudo), subservient, cold, ruthless, and, conveniently enough, has a sad-sack back story to justify her personality.
Pannu, who was memorable in the legal drama Pink in 2016, makes a convincing automaton in Naam Shabana. Pannu’s blank eyes, minimal expressions and monotonous dialogue delivery perfectly convey Shabana’s unblinking embrace of her new life. The movie is closer in mood to the Jason Bourne films than the James Bond franchise. Any pleasure is strictly for business, and whatever we see of Shabana’s inner life disappears when she makes the cut. Ajay does get a back massage while pretending to consort with a woman who is a source of information, but he might as well have been getting a shave at the local barbershop.
Any successful espionage movie needs a villain either deliciously dastardly or frighteningly omnipotent to make the plot contrivances acceptable. Naam Shabana has Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), a smug drug dealer and weapons supplier who is barely convincing as one of the most wanted men on the planet. Tony is neither bright nor malevolent enough to earn Shabana her first real collar. The movie touts its heroine as a homegrown feminist who can match men for punch, but the plot makes it too easy for Shabana to track down Tony. Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have fought tougher adversaries in their action thrillers, and Anne Parrilaud walks on eggs throughout her training and her missions in the French film Nikita.
Shabana initially has a rough time, and although the opening scenes take far too long to establish her character, they have more heft than what follows. The early sequences explore Shabana’s relationship with her widowed mother and her boyfriend Jai (Taher Shabbir), and set up her character nicely. She can handle herself. She can wear masks. She is intelligent and dedicated. But most of all, she can take instructions.
Naam Shabana shares several qualities with its origin movie Baby: a fantasy of an efficient intelligence service that goes after the enemies of the state with guts but no expectation of glory; business-like officials; a high kill rate; laconic heroes and heroines who sit around all day waiting to be summoned. Pandey’s predilection for righteous justice has created a sub-genre of movies about real and imagined victories in the new battlefields of the modern world – the hotel room, the nightclub, and tourist-friendly capitals. Evil is hiding in plain sight, but our Indian heroes are working on it behind the scenes, Pandey suggests in his films. Perhaps Naam Shabana needed to have embraced this logic more strongly. Next time, shoot and leave, and don’t break any glass.