If Shivam Nair’s “Naam Shabana” is to be believed, India’s top intelligence agency is more diligent about its recruitment process than it is about actually catching enemies of the state. Shabana (Taapsee Pannu) is tracked by “The Agency” from the time she is a teenager with a murky past and eventually recruited as a spy.
Her recruiter (Manoj Bajpayee), whose name we never hear, spends all his time in a windowless office tracking all of South Mumbai through CCTV. He apparently chooses Shabana because she talks about killing people with relish.
Meant as a prequel to Neeraj Pandey’s crisp 2015 spy thriller “Baby”, “Naam Shabana” is the back story of one of the characters in that film, but Nair doesn’t inherit Pandey’s penchant for surprises and twists.
He spends too much time establishing Shabana’s background, her love story, and the recruiting process and training. By the time she actually starts taking down the bad guys, almost all of the film’s 148-minute run time is over.
It’s not just the appearance that is a problem, the ideology has cracks too. Shabana says she doesn’t believe in the law, but still fights for a state agency. Her boss doesn’t believe in rules and would rather have his colleagues function like vigilantes, but forgets that vigilantes hardly work for the government.
The action scenes involve Pannu engaged in hand-to-hand combat in several well-executed sequences, but Nair would rather hide the lack of cleverness in the script with drama (lots of glass doors breaking, bullets being fired) and loud background music.
Even his villain (Prithviraj Sukumaran), a dreaded arms dealer who is being hunted by many governments, is foolish enough to check into a huge hospital with an entourage of gun-toting bodyguards in full public view.
The idea of a female spy who is out to kill evil men is not a bad one and almost unprecedented in Bollywood, and Pannu’s one stand-out scene in 2015’s “Baby” set her up nicely for the role.
But on watching “Naam Shabana”, you realise that not all stories need two hours of run time. Sometimes, a well-executed five-minute scene is more than enough.