It is a cross between the Chevron and the pencil, best seen on Amol Palekar in the 1979 comedy Gol Maal and appropriated in recent times by Akshay Kumar. The slim and sharp moustache has done for Kumar’s career what Kaun Banega Crorepati did for Amitabh Bachchan: resurrect it. And Akshay Kumar has Neeraj Pandey to thank.
Even since Kumar took a turn as a confidence trickster in Pandey’s Special 26 in 2013, he has been dominating the thriller genre. In Pandey’s world of cross-border espionage, terrorists and turncoats, Kumar is cast as a regular-looking bloke doing pretty irregular things – saving the world, defusing bombs and silencing machine guns without having to wear his underpants over his tights. All this while mouthing rousing lines on Indian corruption and systemic failure that draw wolf whistles and tears of pride in packed theatres.
Naam Shabana, which will be released on March 31, has been written and produced by Pandey and seems to be a perfect product of his school of filmmaking. Directed by Shivam Nair, the thriller features Taapsee Pannu as secret agent Shabana Khan, who made a strong impression in Pandey’s Baby as Akshay Kumar’s invaluable sidekick in Nepal. In Naam Shabana, Pannu plays a cherubic woman turned stealth warrior, who is trained in vengeance by Manoj Bajpayee and Akshay Kumar in a special appearance. Both men have suitably slim moustaches.
The idea of a spin-off was born during the post-production of Baby, Pandey told Scroll.in. “We were watching the edit and realised that Tapsee in her brief appearance had left quite an impression,” he said. “The film did well and people reacted positively to her character. What started as a conversation eventually turned into a full-fledged film and we decided to put this into motion before moving on to MS Dhoni. We knew that if the script shaped up well, we would go ahead and do it.” (Pandey wrote and directed the Dhoni biopic in 2016.)
In Naam Shabana, Pannu’s character seeks to find her lover’s killers. In the process, she is drawn into a world of cross-border espionage, mixed martial arts and high-stakes crime.
“In Baby, Pannu’s character comes into the film at one point, does her thing and disappears,” Pandey explained. “We go back to the origin of the character – how she gets into a situation and gets drawn into an espionage team. It is about the making of a spy and the contours from the genesis to the character finale.”
Does the film share any notes with Kahaani? “I have seen the film and I have written Naam Shabana, and I can tell you that it is nothing like Kahaani,” Pandey said. “At the same time, I will not judge you if you think it is.”
The writer and filmmaker has garnered enough of a reputation to earn top billing even in movies produced by him. Rustom, based on the KM Nanavati trial of 1959, directed by Tinu Suresh Desai and starring Akshay Kumar, was billed as a Neeraj Pandey film. Even though Rustom was panned for its tacky production values and dubious take on the reasons for Nanavati’s motives, the film clicked at the box office. There were reports at the time that Akshay Kumar insisted that Pandey should receive top credits in the promotional material.
“There was no Neeraj Pandey touch in the film – as a creative mentor to a film directed by one of my assistants, my job was to nurture and maintain the voice,” Pandey said. “I did not want to overshadow the texture, the tone and voice. The fact that the film received unfavourable reviews and yet did well at the box office should tell you something about what worked.”
Pandey made a sparkling debut in 2008 with A Wednesday, a terrorism thriller starring Naseeruddin Shah as a vigilante and Anupam Kher as the police officer who tries to outwit him. A Wednesday introduced elements that have resurfaced since in several films directed and produced by the 34-year-old filmmaker: plots inspired by real-life events, tight budgets, real locations, snappy storytelling, and a patriotic message.
Pandey attributes his filmmaking style to the television documentaries he made before he stepped into Bollywood. “I believe that every step that we take during our growing up years and our early work shapes our mindset,” he said. “As a documentary filmmaker working for television, I learnt a lot about discipline and efficiency. We had tight budgets and, at times, no budgets at all. The television documentary was the right medium to understand how to function in Bollywood.”
Pandey’s biggest ally and calling card has been Akshay Kumar, but the director plays down his contribution towards reshaping the star’s screen persona. “There is a perception that his turnaround happened because of me, but you have to give him credit,” Pandey said. “In his long career, he has chosen different kinds of films. He happened to choose Special 26 and it paid off for him. He is obviously one who takes chances and reinvents himself. He is smart enough to understand that this is working for him and he is enjoying it.”
Apart from Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpayee are recurring actors in Pandey’s films. These performers are perfectly suited to deliver the crowd-pleasing heroics and chest-thumping patriotism of Pandey’s films.
Films need to deliver a message, Pandey said. “What needs to be spoken will be spoken,” he said. “I started with A Wednesday, in which a character speaks out against the system, anything going wrong. Characters in my films will speak if they need to. I would rather choose not to speak out than beat around the bush.”