“Naam Shabana”… A not-bad thriller, with an interesting female/Muslim angle

Posted on May 1, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

It’s easy to see why a studio would green-light Casino Royale. It was, after all, the origins story of the world’s most famous secret agent. It’s harder to make a case for Shivam Nair’s Naam Shabana, a sort-of prequel to Neeraj Pandey’s Baby. Not only is this the backstory for a minor character, it’s also about a Muslim who saves the day. We don’t get too many of those films in India. Vishwaroopam was one. A man named Wisam Ahmad Kashmiri prevents New York City from being bombed. (Someone must send Trump a DVD.) Naam Shabana is probably the second.

The opening scenes are as generic as they come. An unseen photographer keeps clicking pictures of a man on a Viennese street. Ranvir Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) keeps barking into a phone about a safe house. The music is what would result if tension and anxiety had a one-night stand in a cheap motel. Standard-issue spy-thriller stuff.

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The real opening, however, is in a crowded Mumbai street, as Shabana (Taapsee Pannu) accompanies her mother (Natasha Rastogi), who’s shopping for vegetables. The mother is in a burqa, but she does not mind that Shabana is friends with a boy named Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala) who wants to be more than friends with her. The film quickly establishes the family’s Muslim-ness as well as secular-ness.

Also kickass-ness. A man brushes against Shabana and apologises. She follows him, beats him up, and then returns the apology. She’s a martial arts student, and Jai says he feels safe with her. Ranvir Singh, who’s been keeping an eye on her, knows she’s a possible recruit for the RAW-type agency he works for. Its mission: national security at any cost.

So let’s recap: Naam Shabana is the story of a Muslim girl who loves a Hindu boy, and she’s being recruited by people whose duty it is to guard the country, and the hero of the earlier film (Akshay Kumar) gets sidelined as a supporting actor. The movie needn’t even be much good, and it’d still be a pop-culture milestone.

It helps that the movie isn’t bad. It would have been better with a shorter running time (it runs some two-and-a-half hours), but it chugs along with a satisfying mechanical efficiency – the usual amalgamation of chases and fights and training sequences and a dangerous mission to capture a weapons supplier wanted by agencies the world over. Small problem: the man keeps changing his appearance via plastic surgery. Like Casino Royale, Naam Shabana is about a first kill. What’s interesting is that this isn’t the first time Shabana has caused someone’s death.

Naam Shabana explores the notion of a woman using violence as catharsis. Not revenge, mind – it’s not about getting even with the people who screwed up your life. It’s more like she’s exorcising something: personal tragedy becomes fuel for public service. Taapsee Pannu plays Shabana as an expressionless automaton, and it’s easy to see why. Whatever she’s channelling, it’s all inside.

The best scene plays on the fact that she’s Muslim. Ranvir tells her that because of her religion, her point of view is different. “Aaj kal ki jo haalat hai, usme tumhare religion ke vajah se hamara access badhta hai – hamare raaste khulte hain kai jagahon pe.” In other words, her religion opens up doors otherwise locked. Shabana is not insulted at being “used” this way. She understands. She leaves. And then Ranvir picks up the phone and says, “Bahut kadi nazar rakho ispe. Zara bhi shak ho to khatam kar do.” (Watch her carefully. If you have the slightest suspicion, finish her off.) We’re left wondering if these instructions are routine, whether they’d have been issued even if the heroine was named Sharmila.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi