Taking off from the 2015 hit Baby, Naam Shabana would like us to believe that underneath the chaotic, inefficient cacophony of public life in India, there’s an efficient and secret force selflessly at work making sure we’re all safe in our beds from enemies of the nation.
As Manoj Bajpayee, a key higher-up in The Agency that recruits Shabana, sells it to us at one point in the film, they’re not expecting medals, they’re not expecting fame. While they leave chasing fame to the rest of us, they understand their destinies – to do what needs to be done, quickly and quietly.
The only problem is that the spies aren’t at all quiet and stealthy in the film. Naam Shabana is quick to catch up on tricks of the trade from hits like the Bourne trilogy. So, its fight sequences are fast and rough, its trade talk is serious and clipped, and its characters have little time or energy for anything beyond the mission. And let’s make no mistakes about it, this delivers some very enjoyable high-adrenaline moments, with both Taapsee Pannu and Akshay Kumar kicking butt with realistic flair.
Unfortunately, Naam Shabana just can’t get past the idea of spycraft as the process of beating the stuffing out of people until they tell you what they want. They also seem to enjoy breaking furniture, glass doors and anything else that gets in their way, usually in the noisiest and most unnecessary fashion possible. The only reason it works so well is because the shadowy villain The Agency is fighting – trafficker and arms dealer Tony (played by Malayalam actor Prithviraj), doesn’t seem all that shadowy himself, hanging out in fancy hotels around the world waiting for our hero spies to spot him, and dropping clues on all his plans as often as possible.
This is especially illogical, since The Agency is originally introduced to us as a massive shadowy entity that is constantly monitoring its own citizens without their knowledge, looking for rare diamonds like Shabana, who can get their hands dirty for the country.
Shabana herself starts off as an interesting premise, but fails to engage us as much as promised at the start. She’s a regular middle-class girl, but with a penchant for martial arts, and has an emotional wall bigger than the Great Wall of China. That’s because she’s wounded, a wound that also turned her from a timid creature into the hard-boiled heroine we are seeing on screen. And just when it seems that she might drop the wall again, tragedy strikes again. Luckily, The Agency is there to pick up the pieces and turn her personal rage into a national weapon.
Unfortunately, all of this takes so long to establish that, notwithstanding the bass-heavy background score, the film has lost most of its audience way before the thrills begin. Add to this, the fact that Taapsee struggles to show more subtle shades between blank indifference and openly angry defiance, and you get a main character that is very hard to connect to.
The tragedy is that the film has some if not all the ingredients for a very engaging pulp thriller – a righteously angry heroine intent on revenge, who truly finds herself when she is guided towards a larger cause. Unfortunately, Naam Shabana just can’t seem to find a properly engaging path from A to B, and wanders off into dullness instead.