Shoma A. Chatterji
The “strong woman” sales pitch has caught Bollywood in a BIG way. Naam Shabana is the latest in this ever-increasing strategy to woo the audience. Some are based on real stories of courage like Neerja and Dabang while the others are pure fiction such as Pink, Parched, Akira and so on. Fact or fiction or a mishmash of the two, the audience is won over hands down, and one addition to this list is Naam Shabana. The publicity hype is tilted towards the physical strength of the woman but the film tells us a slightly skewed story.
This is the story of Shabana Khan (Taapsi Pannu), a young girl who has her reasons for keeping strictly to herself and not responding to the young and handsome Jai’s subtle expressions of love who gives her a lift on her way to college and back home. This is explained through a cleverly designed collage of flashbacks that spell out a stormy family life spilling over with extreme domestic violence where her mother was victim and her father was the perpetrator. Perhaps, as a conscious act of self-defence, Shabana trains in several kinds of martial arts, is exceptionally good and even wins at local championships.
When her excellent skills in self defence cannot save Jai’s life from unprovoked violence and the police drags its feet because the killer is the son of a politician, Shabana decides to take law and kill the killer. An anonymous phone call changes her life. The caller (Manoj Bajpeyee) is the ‘voice’ of a secret agency run by the government to catch Michel, the kingpin of an her target killer and Shabana just has to do as told and bring her skills in martial arts whenever called. It’s a deal and nothing more.
“Do as told” is the operative phrase so far as Shabana’s character goes. The minute her “personal agenda” of getting even with the young man who killed Jai is accomplished, she is turned into a mechanical doll who makes just the right moves when the key is turned and then taken away to ‘safety’ by her boss. Who else should that saviour be but Akshay Kumar? Strange that the strong-willed Shabana has no issues with being “saved” by a man when she is perfectly capable of looking after herself! She just does as told and no questions asked. Why?
The slow but steady suspense built up to the final kill by Shabana of her late boyfriend’s killer forms the core of the film. The jet-paced editing keeps step with the action, the cinematography and the acting by the different characters though one feels that Manoj Bajpeyee is utterly wasted in a non-descript role which reduces him to phoning instructions to Shabana from the terrace of an old building in a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood of Mumbai. The music is good but the songs on the soundtrack sound discordant in a thorough action film like this one. The relatively unknown actors who play Michel and Tony are very good while what Anupam Kher with a ghastly wig and Danny Denzongpa in a small role are doing in this film is a mystery. Smaller actors could have fitted in equally well.
Shabana is strong, physically, mentally and emotionally which is surprising because two years spent in a juvenile home should have logically left some emotional and physical scars behind. Her warm interactions with her mother offer relief in an otherwise emotion-free drama as do the tiny bits of romance with Jai.
Naam Shabana is a very tightly-knit, fast-paced action film that gives little space to family or romance issues, does not dwell on a topic for long and keeps the audience waiting with bated breath for what is going to happen next. But it is Taapsi Pannu who holds the film together, marginalising everyone else. Her face is almost blank because she has trained herself to hold her emotions in control.
At certain moments, her eyes are moist with tears which she takes care not to shed. The face sans expression underscores the ‘mechanical doll’ she has been turned into, without knowing what she is letting herself into. Whenever her boss comes to hold her hand to take her away to safety, she looks more confused than relieved. So, does the physically trained woman still need to be saved by a physically strong man? Is that the message the film has tried to pass on? If it is, then Taapsi Pannu has helped it greatly with her amazing performance.