I saw Naam Shabana last night and I was sooooooooooo sleepy that I couldn’t bring myself to write a review before I went to sleep. Although I did post a podcast. Anyway, now I am awake! And ready to write.
This is a very very well-made movie. The tightness of the script, the pacing, the clarity of the editing and camera work, that was all very well done. And Taapsee does a great job with the central role. She has to carry the emotional heart of the film without being emotive, because it wouldn’t fit with her character.
The other actors have a lot less to do, which is a stylistic choice. I am fascinated with how this film and Baby were set up. Instead of the usual Hindi film with a villain and a hero and then all the other actors who are just there in the background, this film gives each actor a chance to play a main role, but only for a few minutes. And with no backstory or motivations. They just show up, do their few minutes as the central character for an isolated sequence, and then never appear again. So we get peak Anupam, five minutes of Danny Danzongpa, and Akshay with a couple of big fight scenes and in the middle of one song. It’s quality, not quantity. No time wasted, just cut to the best bits of their performance.
Oh, and Prithviraj is there too. He is super fun, and it was very strange to see him in this role after watching his much more complex performance in City of God over and over and over again. But he did a good job, he had the most scenes of the film of anyone, excluding Kangana and Manoj Bajpai, and I never got tired of him.
Those are the ways in which the film had the same strengths as Baby. It had one extra strength, in a strong emotional through line through Taapsee’s development. But to make up for that, some of the things that made me a little uncomfortable in Baby were just increased here. I was frustrated in Baby with how it was such a “male” movie, women were kept in their neat little categories, “wife”, “female agent”, “sexual object”. At first this movie looks like it is shaking that up a little bit, by making Taapsee the lead, but after the first 20 minutes or so, it takes a disturbing turn.
I saw Baby several weeks ago in preparation for this film. And it made me excited for this movie because of the way it played with our expectations for the female agent. You assume she will be used as a sexual object, they even refer to her as a “honeypot”. But then instead of an item number or a sex scene, she ends up having a massive fight scene. For one 15 minute section, it was a really cool twist on our expectations for the character.
But this movie expands on that, turns it into a 2 hour film, and I found myself increasingly disappointed. Because while her fight scenes and fight training are neat, ultimately she is still a woman being used for her body, not her mind. And her body is still being controlled by others, she never thinks for herself or comes up with her own plans.
Well, most of the time. There is a little bit at the beginning where she is own her on, but even there she is mostly directed by Manoj Bajpai and then rescued by Akshay Kumar. And then it just goes downhill from there, more and more her entire life is controlled by these men around her, with the intention of using her body for their own ends.
I don’t want to say that anything we are seeing is disturbing on its own, if the genders were reversed I would be totally okay with the kind of training they show her receiving and the way the plot plays out. Well, mostly okay. It’s just that it is a woman, not a man, and the way she is constantly surrounded by and bossed around by and obedient to men just starts to feel odd.
Speaking of gender reversal, that was my favorite part! Right at the beginning, the whole first 20 minutes or so, is a classic hero’s journey. She is damaged and outcast from society, and her lover tries to soften her and bring her back into the “normal” parts of life (her lover is the “Sid Kapoor” actor from Fan, by the way, and he is very pretty, but a terrible terrible actor who says almost all his lines in English which makes me wonder if he even speaks Hindi). It felt very similar to Akira, and I am liking this new trend of taking standard Indian film beats and just flipping the script on them by changing the genders.
But then the gender is impossible for me to ignore in the later parts as more and more men start appearing. And the only other women we see are on the “whore” side of the Virgin-Whore dynamic. Those are your choices in this movie, be a directed weapon giving up your entire life to working for the government, or be a club slut.