(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
In Neeraj Pandey’s 2015 film, Baby, a fight breaks out in a hotel room. It begins as pure self-defense and it turns dirty. It happens in Nepal, between Shabana Khan (Taapsee Pannu) and Wasim Khan (Sushant Singh). This is unexpected because till that point, Shabana is only built up as some sort of helper, a distraction, for Ajay (Akshay Kumar) to take advantage of. The payoff is incredible especially due to the way Shabana is brought into the whole deal. The film released with good to glowing reviews. It did well. Everyone spoke about that Shabana scene. Pandey has written this spin-off with Taapsee Pannu reprising the role, now titular. Once again, Shabana has her first real fight inside a hotel room. In Goa. Tables are broken. Glasses shatter. Shivam Nair directs. Wonder if that’s the problem.
There was a sophistication to the filmmaking in Baby that’s missing in Naam Shabana. Baby was single-minded in its approach to servicing the plot elements whereas Naam Shabana doesn’t mind taking all the detours. We expect to see another Baby, that is relentless in its storytelling, which even complimented the workings of a spy agency concerned with national security. Baby took itself seriously in the good way, avoiding songs and resisting the jingoistic rhetoric. Naam Shabana wants to be a biopic. It wants to chart Shabana from her younger, influential years. A back story. Her training. The action really is secondary. A noble thought it may be but the writing needs to be engaging to pull this off. About one thirds into the film, we wonder where is Akshay Kumar. That’s a problematic thought while watching a film about a female spy.
Pandey and Nair’s focus is so much on the foreplay that they let go of the good stuff for the most part. And when it arrives, it is dealt with in unimaginative ways. Of all films, they chose Naam Shabana to have item numbers. Baby played up the good/bad Muslim trope in more matured ways. Here, Shabana’s Muslim identity is only paid a lip service. Even the aesthetics are overplayed here. Doors and keypads invisible to the naked eye. Badly choreographed chases. Stock characters doing the dirty jobs for a spy agency. If you are going to ask why should one compare it to Baby, just count the number of references here. The background theme is retained. Several hat tips are made to the original. Characters from Baby make unnecessary appearances. Baby’s coattails are frequently abused. For a spin-off, Naam Shabana and Baby’s worlds are grossly inconsistent. There is just one moment late into the film that stands out. It had the wry, cheeky wit that was present throughout Baby. An item number ensues. An intervention in a crowded nightclub and an immediate cut to the walk towards the hotel room. A gender swapped honey trap. Now that’s some sophistication.