Watching Akshay Kumar as covert ops specialist Ajay Singh Rajput in the new thriller Baby, I began to wonder if there was another star who would have been equally at home in this exceptionally physical role. Salman has the muscles, yes, but with him, the film would have turned more escapist and pop-py. Shah Rukh looks tired, and Aamir has the intensity but has to work twice as hard to register the physicality. Ajay Devgn? Probably – but he’s too dour on screen. You see him on the posters and you don’t exactly rub your hands and go, Now this should be a crackling entertainer. The younger lot – Ranveer, Ranbir, Shahid – are too, well, young. You wouldn’t believe them in the scenes with the wife (Madhurima Tuli) and the two young children, or in the scene where Rajput grimly guns down a team member who’s been tortured and practically left for dead by the enemy, almost as if granting him release. The stray strands of grey on Akshay’s face help us buy into the illusion that the character he plays is capable of doing these things, that he is in a place in his life where he would be doing these things.
The physicality helps too. Akshay surely works out as much as the others, but looking at him you don’t think, “Spends five hours daily in the gym.” You think, “Health.” He looks naturally fit, like one of those old-time wrestlers who, with nothing more than dumbbells and a proper diet, looked in peak shape. Akshay looks like a natural candidate for the missions depicted in this movie. There’s no backstory needed. We don’t need to be convinced about Ajay Singh Rajput. The film hits the ground running, and it’s because of the authenticity Akshay wears like a second skin that we don’t have to struggle to keep up.
The actor spreads himself so thin across so many genres and has so many releases that it’s easy to be fatigued by his omnipresence, but Baby is worth seeking out. It’s a fairly generic film – the good guys are gooder than good, the bad guys are the worst. Ajay is such a boy scout, he keeps saying “please” and “thank you.” There’s not a shade of grey in sight. There’s not a moment where we sense, say, Ajay conflicted between his desire to serve his nation and his desire to be with the family he doesn’t see for months on end. And when a junior officer is singled out as someone celebrating his wedding anniversary – in one of those bonding scenes so inevitable in these movies, where the bonding is as much between the characters as between the characters and the audience – you know he’s going to get blown up a couple of minutes later. But the lack of complexity isn’t a failure here, just as it isn’t a failure in the Bond movies. That’s probably a good comparison. There aren’t any girls, of course – Ajay is too straight for that. But there are guns and there’s a lot of globetrotting (Istanbul, Nepal, Saudi Arabia). What camouflages the comic-book nature of the enterprise is the flag-waving. If you have synesthesia, you’d see the militaristic background score in stripes of saffron, white and green. As one-dimensional as these characters are, some corner of the brain registers that there are heroes and heroines in real life doing these very things, and we feel grateful. Films like Baby help us put a face on the people who choose to remain invisible.
The enemies, of course, are people who are all too visible these days – they are Islamic terrorists. (The top villains are played by Kay Kay Menon, wearing contact lenses the colour of pure evil, and the avuncular Rasheed Naz, who looks like Dumbledore after the latter had apparated to Pakistan.) And in true masala-movie tradition, there’s a “Good Muslim” to balance things out, a young boy who almost became a terrorist and who’s now opted to become an informer. When a terrorist named Jamal is killed early on, a higher-up in the defence ministry congratulates the covert ops team leader Feroze Ali Khan (another good Muslim, played by a terrific Danny Denzongpa) and says, “Jamal ek gaddaar tha.” But Khan knows better. He replies, “Jamal ek Hindustani tha.” The real danger, Baby says, are those like Jamal, Indian Muslims who are being brainwashed by foreign terrorist organisations into disbelieving the national pledge – they’re being told, “India isn’t my country, all Indians aren’t my brothers and sisters…” But Baby isn’t about the whats and whys of terrorism. All of this is just a coat of paint to make things seem fresh and relevant.
The director Neeraj Pandey realises that he isn’t making a film about ideas. He’s making an action movie, a thriller. Baby feels long at over two-and-a-half hours, but there’s nothing that feels redundant. Pandey’s focus isn’t just on goosing us with periodic thrills. He wants to take us through the painstaking processes, step by step, so we feel the scope of these missions, the planning and coordination it takes to pull them off. It’s not just about going somewhere and pumping a few bullets into a guy – we are always aware that if things go wrong, Ajay and his cohorts (Rana Daggubati, a droll Anupam Kher) will be left hung out to dry.
It helps that, despite that running time, there’s no fat – no item song in the villain’s den. The only extraneous scenes are the ones with Ajay’s family, and even there, the outside always intrudes. In the film’s best stretch, Ajay promises his kids a series of outings, and even as he’s going down the list (a movie, the zoo), the phone rings, and when he doesn’t pick up, a second phone rings, and then a third – those outings will have to wait. Even at the end, there’s no loving hug, no sense of happily ever after – just the satisfaction of a mission well done. Baby is as good an example as we’re likely to see of a film that seeks to entertain but with a semblance of “reality” – it’s a world removed from the similarly themed Holiday, which couldn’t be taken seriously for a second. And yet, the “punch” moments are all there. Ajay gets a series of great comebacks – a crack about the “religion column” on forms, a scene with a slap, an interrogation that ends with the line “aadat hai.” And Taapsee Pannu almost walks away with the movie – not because of her performance or some such thing, but because her scene in a hotel room comes with such a devilish twist. Sometimes it isn’t just the comedy that leaves you smiling.
- Rasheed Naz = see here
- Jamal ek gaddaar tha = Jamal was a traitor.
- Jamal ek Hindustani tha = Jamal was an Indian.
- aadat hai = it’s become a habit.
- national pledge = see here
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