A scene in the 2015 thriller Baby sparked an idea for a prequel. The result is Naam Shabana, which tediously weaves the backstory of Shabana Khan (Tapsee Pannu), a college student recruited by a counter-intelligence agency.Neeraj Pandey, who directed Baby, is the writer of Naam Shabana and his enthusiasm has clearly resulted in much fill-in-the-blanks with director Shivam Nair unable to edit out the overstatement.
We see everything—details of Shabana’s home life, her relationship with her mother, with her friends and a bubbling romance. We hear of her painful past and witness her present in which she is desperate for vengeance. Pannu is hardly likable. She scowls a lot and even treats her boyfriend poorly. Her one channel for venting her latent aggression is in her Kudo classes. It’s a little like the Quantico plot, if you can fill in the blanks.
We know Shabana is being watched and we finally meet the people who have identified her as a potential asset for the Indian intelligence agency. As Shabana’s recruiter, Manoj Bajpayee is wasted in a role that mostly seems him pacing up and down a stark corridor talking into a Bluetooth headset or a phone. When Shabana declares that she had aspirations of wanting to represent India in sport, Bajpayee says she would have wasted her talents. If that dialogue astounds you, wait till you hear the one where he tells Shabana that her religion can be played as an advantage by the agency. Confounding indeed.
This is the first, predictable, flabby first half. Fortunately, once the training and action pick up so does the second half. And it really is like a whole different movie post interval, with the predictability intact. The action mostly takes place in Malaysia with the agency chasing an international criminal. Enter Prithviraj Sukumaran as Mikhail aka Tony. After him are the old hands—Akshay Kumar, Danny Denzongpa, Murali Sharma and Anupam Kher.
At one point the agency manages to overpower Mikhail. The agents even manage to plant a tracker in his toe. But it seems even international criminals on the run take time out for a pedicure, and the tracker is found. Bewildering!
Almost as baffling as the remixed number Zubi Zubi thrust in leading into Akshay Kumar being bathed by a lissome lass, allegedly a source of crucial information on Tony’s whereabouts.
The film ends as a set up for Baby but Naam Shabana makes your realise the effort and skill a prequel requires. It barely works in this case largely due to the script, but in part because of Pannu’s deadpan expressions and in part because of director Nair overtelling it. Much more effort has gone into creating an authentic milieu than crafting an engaging character study in the foreground.