The most awkward thing about Naam Shabana is how it keeps trying to establish itself as a spin-off of Neeraj Pandey's 2015 hit, Baby. There are scattered hints early on, and later appearances by familiar characters that elicit chuckles of recognition from fans. But then the Baby references keep on coming. Slowly, you realise that Naam Shabana is like that under-confident, small-town cousin of yours who needs to cling to you to feel secure.
It's a pity because the film has a lot going for it. A well fleshed-out lead for one. A quick-thinking, tough-minded, unsentimental heroine whose primary character trait is resilience. In the compelling first half of the film, we are introduced to the brooding college student, Shabana (Taapsee), who seems to be on a mission to not end up being a gender stereotype.
As she negotiates the crowded streets of Mumbai, her fist is clenched, her brows furrowed. It's almost as if each and ever pore of her body is alert. In other words, Shabana seems adequately prepared to take on the mean streets of NCR.
Shabana seems to have little time for trivialities of college canteen romances. The only purpose of her square-jawed suitor, Jai, is to ferry her from judo classes to college and then from college back home. Their romance is shorn of undue sentimentality.
Like the heroines of 1980s blockbuster, Jai seems to be content in the belief that his lover is meant for greater purposes. So what if she has no time for him, he will persevere and support her. That, in itself, is a wonderful role-reversal.
Shabana has been, for some specific reasons, identified as a possible secret agent by the Indian government and circumstances lead her to accept the post.
Shabana's idealistic Jedi-ish tendencies come with a generous dose of cynicism. She’s suspicious of everyone around her and contemptuous of the agency that she is working for. Yet, she is scrupulously professional. When a crucial mission announces itself — I don’t think I’m supposed to say too much about it, other than that it’s highly perilous and requires the lead cast to walk down a lot of corridors with phones glued to their ears — Shabana zips up her track suit and gets going without asking a single question.
However, in the second half, director Shivam Nair falls prey to the lust of making a Rs 300-crore blockbuster. Suddenly, Shabana's story takes a backseat and we are taken to the world of Indian espionage thrillers.
Here, the big boys from Baby take over- the hard-boiled type (Akshay Kumar), and the wisecracking cynic in a wig (Anupam Kher). They are sent to babysit Shabana as she tries to take down Bollywood's new favourite villain, the nefarious arms dealer. Prithviraj as Tony is a marvel of sneering, vainglorious villainy in impeccable suits. Tony, the face-changing arms dealer, could be a character from the god-awful Commando 2 that released last month. He is so ridiculously unidimensional that you can almost see the shadow of regret on Prithviraj's face at moments. "This is not what I thought it would be," he seems to be telling himself.
All the pieces are there, however, like Lego figures in a box. The problem is that Shivam Nair seems to be confused about the story he wants to tell. Naam Shabana is actually two films in one- a compelling character study is the first part and a B-grade spy thriller is the second. A couple of fifth-graders on their summer holidays would come up with a better resolution to the spy thriller, and probably also better dialogues.
Watch Naam Shabana only for its taut, well-crafted first half and its gloriously complex titular character.