NAAM SHABANA.  Director: Shivam Nair.  Players: Taapsee Pannu, Akshay Kumar, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa, Natasha Rastogi, Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala.  Music: Rochak Kohli, Meet Bros.  Hindi with Eng.  subtitles.  Theatrical release (T-Series)

Naam ShabanaAfter the success of Pink (2016), where Pannu rocked the screen as a woman seeking to clear her name in the wake of a waylaid sexual assault, Pannu’s arc was sure to rise. And Naam Shabana, the prequel to Neeraj Pandey’s hit Baby (2015) would be a logical next stop. A team-approach story rather than a solo player entry, Naam Shabana has pretty much the same cast as the first installment and plays pretty much the same field. A little rough at the edges and yet smooth in delivery, Naam Shabana is a worthy follow-up that continues the uptick for Pannu.

For Shabana Khan (Pannu), a young woman on the verge of landing new beau Jai (Mithaiwala), a bright future takes a dark turn when Shabana and Jai are attacked one night. While still recovering, Shabana gets a cryptic call from someone claiming to know minute details of the attack–something unknowable unless the couple was being trailed to begin with. The mystery caller offers Shabana help with avenging the attack at a price. Thus, begins her odyssey into the world of clandestine international espionage.

Neeraj Pandey, who directed the first entry Baby (2015) in the sequence, here handles only the script. Pandey’s deft hand, however, spins the spy motif from the get-go. While there is plenty of action, the story never veers too far from a determined Shabana’s struggle to forge her own identity, make a professional mark and also avenge her personal loss. Shabana eventually lands on the trail of a ruthless international terrorist responsible for killing two Indian spies in Europe.

Much as Baby did, the backdrop to this movie gets validated by larger contemporary themes. Recent highly publicized attacks on some women on public transport in India received international attention and also brought into focus the role that self-defense primers can play in women’s safety. The faceless scourge of terrorism and the illicit drug trade has resulted in shape-shifting villains resorting to reconstructive facials and jumping borders at will while being pitted against an often-overwhelmed official spy network operating where no one can be relied upon and even few can be truly trusted.

For a thriller plotline that underlines guardianship of national security secrets, since the secrets themselves won’t be revealed the plotline must then rely on the credibility of the protagonist for the premise to hold water. And Pannu’s Shabana may be just the ace the script needs. In Baby (2015), Pannu already solidly carried her weight with a short, intensely meaty role as a highly-trained spy who confronts her terrorist courier in a posh Kathmandu hotel room. The resulting bare knuckles martial arts girl-vs.-boy brawl–all flying kicks and flying furniture—was essentially the moment Pannu’s star was born.

As an invisible guardian that swoops in unexpectedly, Kumar spends very little time on the screen. And yet his presence cannot be discounted since he was the engine that powered Baby and this is still his franchise.  Bajpayee as the home-front handler for the field spies, Denzongpa as the spy network overlord and Kher as the bumbling middle-aged techie nerd who knows the craft round out a wonderful cast of veterans while Sukumaran, a solid presence in movies from South India, does a terrific turn as villain.

Moving the locales from the Middle East, as with Baby, to Eastern Europe and Malaysia, Naam Shabana is a nice change of pace. There is also superb continuity in again tapping French action choreographer Cyril Raffaelli to elevate martial arts, and not guns, as the weapon of choice. Raffaelli injects realism without either glorifying violence or exhibiting protracted gore. While Naam Shabana has had only limited box-office success, given the sizable combined response to the two entries so far, an underwhelming financial draw with this round will likely not deter the franchise from adding more chapters down the road.
EQ:  A

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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