Naam Shabana Review (SPOILERS): Maximum Events to Hide Minimum Plot

I already put up my NO SPOILERS review, and my podcast, now it’s time for the SPOILER review.  I recommend reading this before listening to the podcast, since the podcast assumes that you already know what happens in the movie.

Whole plot in one not very long paragraph!

We open with an attempt to assassinate a big bad guy.  He not only escapes, he kills the two agents sent after him.  And then we jump over to Bombay to see college student Taapsee.  She is focused and aggressive and on the college Judo team.  Taher Shabbir is the boy who has a crush on her.  The same night she finally reciprocates his feelings, and admits that she resisted because she had killed her abusive father 5 years ago and spent 2 years in jail and didn’t want to let anyone into her damaged life, he is killed by 4 joyriding rich kids.  After this, Taapsee is contacted by Manoj Bajpai who tells her they have been watching her for a long long time and think she might fit in their secret agency team.  And they will help her kill the boys who killed Taher as an entry gift.  She goes to Goa and kills the ringleader, then joins up for training with the agency.  After months of training, the agency gets a lead on the big bad from the opening sequence.  They learn he has had plastic surgery and now looks like Prithviraj.  Taapsee is sent out on her first mission, with Akshay, and they track Prithviraj down at a hospital where he is going in for another face change surgery.  Taapsee is sent in as another patient, the plan is for her to shoot Prithviraj while he is under anesthetic, only Prithviraj refuses anesthetic and is still awake.  Massive fight scene in the operating room between Taapsee and Prithviraj, while Akshay waits outside and doesn’t realize the operation has gone wrong.  Finally he comes in just as Taapsee has won the fight and killed Prithviraj.  They get away, the mission is a success, movie over.

 

I had a hard time deciding what to include in that paragraph, because it’s a movie where either everything is important or nothing is.  It’s not like an “A story” and “B story” kind of structure.  There’s just a bunch of discrete segments of the same general A story.

Image result for naam shabana poster

(As you can see in the poster, with all the different heads layered on top of each other instead of one clear image)

Or I guess maybe two A stories that come together?  We have the development and training of Taapsee.  And we have the tracking down and villainy of Prithviraj.  Only at the end the training of Taapsee culminates in her taking down Prithviraj, so both stories have the same ending.

But the movie feels kind of skimpy, because really neither of those stories is enough to carry an entire film.  It’s only by combining the two stories that you have barely enough for a film.  Kind of like a pick-up leftover supper, you know?  Where you have a little bit of soup and a little bit of pasta and a little bit of casserole and none of it is quite enough on its own or really goes together that well, but you can kind of fill the table if you put it all out at once.  A real planned meal would have a main course and sides and so on that all sort of fit together.  Although, in some ways, this kind of “pick-up supper” film is better.  No boring filler dinner rolls type scenes, just really filling meaty bits in small portions.  As I talked about in my NO SPOILERS review, I like the way each of the actors gets their moment to shine, instead of being relegated to background, because of the way they each get their own little segment of focus in the film.

And through out it all, Taapsee is what ties it together.  In the same way as Akshay in Baby, but better.  Akshay in Baby was our familiar face that joined in almost every scene.  And he also got a bit of an emotional background to keep us grounded, seeing him with his wife and kids and worrying about if he would be able to get back to them.

But in this, Taapsee is not only our familiar face scene to scene, she is also our entry into this world, we learn about it as she is learning about it.  And we care about her emotional journey over the course of the film.  And that emotional journey serves a purpose of hiding MASSIVE LOGICAL HOLES!!!!

We meet Taapsee as a college student living with her mother.  But through out her simple college life sequence, we constantly see her through the lens of a camera, indicating that someone is watching her.  When she gets into a fight with the rowdy rich kids and they kill her boyfriend, the police and ambulance show up immediately, before she can call them.  And then she learns that she has been watched for 5 years, since she killed her father, and is one of 15,000 potential recruits they have been watching.  And now that she is “ready”, they are bringing her in.

So, firstly, the attack on her boyfriend was a total coincidence, she is both a potential recruit for a secret government agency, and the witness to a random killing.  Oh, and a murderer herself!  A life overflowing with incident, in a way that doesn’t really seem possible.

Maybe I could say that the same aggressive defensive instinct which made her kill her abusive father in order to save her mother’s life also lead her to confront some boys who were bad news when she was out with her boyfriend.  And then, I suppose, you could say that it is the same aggressive instinct which lead her to be a potential recruit.  But that doesn’t exactly hold together.  It still seems like an awful lot of coincidence.

The first two things, the murders being related, that hangs together best for me.  I love how Taapsee is set up as a damaged outsider of society, really similar to Salman in Love for instance, in the first 20 minutes or so.  She took on the sins of society by killing her abusive father when no one else could do it.  And then she was sent to jail, ostracized from society until she felt no one could understand her any more.  And now her sweet little boy toy is trying to slowly win her over back to the world, just like Revathy in Love.  Or Mamta in Karan-Arjun.  Batting his eyes and trying to be pretty for her, following her around no matter what happens because he has given her his heart even if she doesn’t seem to notice.  This is the gender bender part that I really liked.

 

Well, I liked except that Taher Shabbir is a TERRIBLE actor!  And I think maybe doesn’t speak Hindi?  There is a ton of English dialogue in this film in general, but Taher has the worst of it, I think he has maybe one line entirely in Hindi.  But the non-verbal and less Taher parts were done well.  The way he picked her up on his motorcycle whenever she needed a ride and always had his backpack swung in front so she could fit behind.  The way Taapsee played liking him, but keeping it inside.  And their love song, their very very brief love song, had some really nice visuals, mostly thanks to Taapsee, showing how she was scared to even touch him, and he was teasing her about it, forcing her to because he knew she wanted to anyway.

 

The end of the romance, and the end of Taher, is a very carefully done scene.  Taher had already said, after Taapsee told her ugly backstory, that he still loved her.  Because he always felt “safe” with her.  Which, he acknowledges, it not something the boy usually says to the girl.  When they are attacked, it is clear that it is Taapsee’s presence as a pretty young woman which attracts the men.  But it is her aggressive response, refusing to look away and instinctively making eye contact with the silent ringleader, which really gets to them.  It’s a great combination of, on the one hand, she is a woman which is why she is being harassed.  But on the other hand, she is fearless with a fire inside her which is why they want to fight her.  It’s the usual scene from a movie, the louts initially attack because of seeing the beautiful woman, and then in that initial interaction they find their nemesis in the girl’s defender.  Only this time, the girl is her own defender!

And then Taher is killed when he goes to help her in the fight, just like the heroine would be killed when she is caught in the crossfire.  And Taapsee is left to find vengeance and track down the killers, just like a man would be.

At which point the MASSIVE PLOT HOLES start up!  I will barely let go the idea that all of these people were following Taapsee, and yet “couldn’t” interfere long enough to save Taher’s life.  But the way they set up her vengeance and offer to help with no further explanation or conversation, just jumping right into it, that I don’t believe at all!  I kept waiting for them to bring her in for a 2 week training period with classes and ethics and philosophy and policy discussions, and only THEN send her off for vengeance.  But no!  A couple of words exchanged over the telephone, and they decide both that she is ready to go off and kill someone, and that they trust her enough to support her.  Sure, you could say “but they already know everything about her!”  But she doesn’t know anything about them!  Shouldn’t they give her some kind of training?  Mental preparation at least?  You don’t just throw someone into a job because they have a natural inclination for it!

(It is cool that Akshay suddenly shows up to steer her out of danger, but it also seems like he should really be more of a trainer and less of a mysterious savior!)

Or maybe you do just trust natural inclination.  That is the argument in the scene that really really ruined the movie for me.  After her successful murder of the boys, Taapsee gets a call telling her to go to a meeting in the middle of the night.  She sees Manoj face to face for the first time.  And he offers her a job working for their agency.  Only he gives her no details besides “it’s for the government”.  Seriously?  She just trusts him because he says things emphatically?  How does she know this really is a government agency, that they are telling her the truth about anything?  And she is supposed to say yes or no immediately?  Why would you even want someone working for you who is dumb enough to agree to this with no details?  Not even, like “do I get paid? Is this a lifetime commitment?  What about my mother?”

That part bothers me a little, it is so blatantly movie dramatic but filmed in a way like they think they are fooling us into not finding it dramatic.  But there are two lines that Manoj says here that really bother me.  First, “women have an extra strand of DNA, they are natural spies”.  And second, “For us, you being Muslim is a bonus.”

Both of them are buying into an essentialist view of identity which is very very dangerous.  I don’t want the idea that women are naturally tricky and naturally skilled to go around.  Because that is next door to the idea of “oh, women are better at that kind of stuff, it’s not as hard for them”.  And then you end up with “gee, I’m just a man, I can’t raise children/do laundry/cook/clean house!  But women are amazing, my wife will be able to do all those things and also work full time and it won’t even be hard for her, so I will just continue sitting around drinking and watching TV while she does all that.”  Or, in this movies version of things, “oh, women are better at being spies, we will take this college girl and give her almost no training and expect her to figure things out entirely on her own, she’ll be fine.”

But the Muslim line, that really really really bothers me.  Has Indian society really reached that point?  Where being Muslim is considered just a common sense reason not to hire someone for a national security job?  So much so that Taapsee herself, the Muslim who surely knows within her own heart that she is not a security risk, is the one to bring it up?  Because she finds it understandable and expected that she will never be considered a “real” Indian, just because of her religion?  That’s INSANE!!!!!

But most of all, once someone says “do you want to hire me knowing I am Muslim?”  the only acceptable response is “that doesn’t matter.”  And that’s not the response here.  No, the response is “For us, that is a bonus”.  WHAT?!?!?!?!?  Because she has the extra “Muslim” strand of DNA?  She knows all the secret Muslim handshakes that they only share between themselves?  We’re not talking about a mole or an informer here, heck, she never even really goes undercover!  All they are doing is sending her in for a few brief conversations with people and then massive fight scenes.  Is the Muslim identity so visible that even if she is just talking to someone for 5 minutes they will be able to tell whether or not she is “really” one of us?  You couldn’t possibly train another woman to fill this role by teaching her to wear a Hijab and do Namaz?  Like, for instance, the Hindu actress Taapsee who is playing Muslim in this movie?  The Muslim identity is that inborn and genetic?

You know, I actually kind of find this insulting as someone from the Christian tradition!  Christianity and Islam and Mormonism and a whole variety of other religions have very clear conversion routines.  And that is a central part of our philosophies.  That we can choose our religious identities, each for ourselves.  And once you have made that choice, you are the same as everyone else in the faith.  Born into it or not born into it, doesn’t matter, because at some point everyone makes that choice.  “Muslim” is not something you have in your DNA, it is not something you cannot “become” later in life.  And the idea that it is, that all religions function like that just because Hinduism functions to some degree in that way, is very very disturbing to me!  Religion is supposed to be something deeply felt and internal.  It is not something you wear on your face or inherit from your parents.

This is the moment the film lost me and never really got me back.  Especially because none of the training sequence that follows really goes against this scene.  Taapsee is brought in and surrounded by men and given a whole bunch of physical training.  And no mental.  Because all the want is her “female DNA” and Muslimness, not her mind or judgement, or any form of agency.

(Also, what is with the airy-fairy female pop song during the training sequence?  So weird!)

Meanwhile, Prithviraj!  We get a little break from Taapsee’s training to see Prithviraj be introduced as a low level mover in the sex trade.  Which, okay, kind of isn’t a break from the Taapsee story.  This comes up all the time in movies and it always bothers me.  The “big bad” is always a drug dealer or an arms dealer or a terrorist.  And half the time, they have to get to him through some guy who is “only” in the sex trade.  It’s an excuse for the audience to get a little titillated “ooo, the sex trade!”, and maybe an item number.

So, we are taking the idea of women and children being kidnapped and raped and killed and turning it into a “ooo, the sex trade!” moment?  Yuch!!!!  Forget the drug dealer and the arms dealer and the terrorist, shouldn’t the sex trade guy be the big bad?

It gets even worse when they follow Prithviraj and see him making out with a white woman in a bikini at his pool.  And get turned on by this.  And there is dialogue about how they are turned on by this.  And the audience is supposed to laugh.  I’m not saying it is the most disturbing sequence to watch or anything like that, but if you know this guy is a pimp, is it really okay to be turned on by watching him with a woman?  Wouldn’t you have some sense that the woman might be there under duress, not by choice?  Not like you have to rush in and rescue her or anything, but at least don’t proudly talk about how turned on you are!  I kind of don’t mind when Prithviraj turns the tables and kills all these creepy guys.  Plus, it’s Prithviraj.  I like him.

(Have I mentioned I’ve been watching City of God on a loop for the past week?)

I also don’t mind because they are SO STUPID about it.  The team of three rushes in and takes Prithviraj and the white woman captive.  Prithviraj gets tied up, but the white woman just has a gun held to her head.  So she can be there and be sexy for the audience in the background of the scene, but also wouldn’t it have been satisfying if the woman they were getting all horny about and discounting had turned around and taken them all out just because they didn’t bother to tie her up?  Anyway, they beat Prithviraj, he finally offers up the information that the big bad got his face changed at a plastic surgeon’s office, and then they untie him and let him go to the bathroom.  REALLY???  You don’t even take a gun with you while you go off alone with him???

Also, MASSIVE PLOT HOLE!!!!  He really does give them the name of his plastic surgeon.  But, why?  If you are just killing time until you manage to get free and kill your captors, then why not give them a fake name?  Heck, why not have a fake answer all set to go in this situation with someone primed to help you fool your captors?  Now they have a photo of what his new face looks like and his whole cover is blown.  He could have gotten away with just being a surprisingly violent and good fighting guy in the sex trade who managed to get away, now they know his whole story.

Oh, and now Taapsee is activated.  For unclear reasons.  I kept waiting for it to be that they needed a woman to go undercover for some reason.  And that’s sort of it maybe, but it’s never explicitly stated.  The plot relies on her being wheeled into the operating suite next door to Prithviraj’s.  Maybe we are meant to assume that even as the patient in an operation, the security wouldn’t have let her in unless she was a tiny weak looking woman?  But it really seems like this could have just as easily been Akshay or anyone else.

They do use her to torture a woman, because I guess the “we do whatever is necessary” rules of this secret branch of government don’t allow them to hit girls.  A little cool gender bending here, Akshay serves as the honey pot.  He seduces Illa Aram away from a club, and then while they are having a bath together (and he gets a call from his wife from the last movie at the same time and hangs up on her), Taapsee comes in.  And he leaves and orders her to torture Illa, because he can’t.  It’s said with a bit of a smile, but it also kind of feels true!  They want Taapsee around to take care of the women.

The final fight scene with Prithviraj is really well done.  Just like her fight in Baby, you can see she is struggling and scared and working hard to win.  And she finally does win not thanks to all her training, but to her intelligence.  She sees and makes use of a defibrillator to stun him.  I think this is kind of a “twist” maybe?  That we think she will win thanks to her training, and actually wins with her intelligence?  Or at least that it is unexpected within the fight scene because we have been primed to see her only as  a body, not a brain.

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7 thoughts on “Naam Shabana Review (SPOILERS): Maximum Events to Hide Minimum Plot

  1. Pingback: New Podcast Announcement! Naam Shabana, and a little Malayalam and Dharmendra – dontcallitbollywood

  2. Wow, what a hodge-podge of a movie! Another one you watched so we wouldn’t have to, I guess.

    The writing of this movie sounds pretty terrible all around, but I just wanted to comment on that “Muslim” line. I thought you would have learned by now that Bollywood movies have no kind of relation to Indian society, so you should not draw any inferences about Indians or Indian society on the basis of Bollywood movies. And I’m using the term “Bollywood” here advisedly, not Indian movies, nor even Hindi movies. Not all Hindi movies are “Bollywood.” Anyway, this is not what “Indian society” has come to, since the Vice President, a previous much beloved President, several top ranking officers in all branches of the military as well as the real secret service, as well as many state governors, Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, etc., etc., etc., are Muslims. It is merely a shorthand developed exclusively for Bollywood films, to show that (a) they are “socially conscious” (see, we recognize that some Muslims might face discrimination!) and (b) Muslims are patriots! So it’s just a much abridged set up to the pay off of “Muslims are patriots, too!”

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    • It’s true, I watch all these dreadful things just so you don’t have to bother! And in hopes that I will find a hidden gem that I can alert you all too.

      There have been various articles in film studies about how the Muslim in Hindi film has sunk from the noble best friend whose religion was an element of their character but had nothing to do with whether or not they could be trusted (Pran in Zanjeer, for instance), to something they must constantly apologize for and excuse and the message being, as you say “Muslims are patriots too.” “Muslim” didn’t even used to be part of that conversation. Just to put it another way, you would never hear a conversation in a film that said “I am Hindu, but I am still a patriot” or “I am Indian before I am Hindu”. And while films and popular culture are not true representations of society in the details of their content, they are reflections of certain values, things filmmakers assume their audience wants, things the audience ignores or looks the other way about, even if they don’t enjoy them. And media studies says that it is the things the audience ignores which are most dangerous, those are the insidious messages that worm their way into the brain until the next time they are having a conversation in real life and someone says “He’s Muslim, but still a nice man”, it doesn’t seem as odd to the audience.

      And this film takes it step beyond that, not having the usual conversation of “Muslims are patriots too” but adding on that essentialist layer that bothered me so much, that someone can be innately “Muslim”. Blech!

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      • Well, I’d think the evolution of the Muslim character on screen had a lot to do with the increase in Muslim terrorism in India starting from the 1990’s. An estimate, at the time of the World Trade Center Attacks, was that, to that point India had suffered 50,000 deaths of its citizens due to terrorist attacks by Muslims. And, not all of these were by Pakistanis, the question of whether a Muslim in a sensitive position could be trusted became more relevant. But what I was saying was that the question has been and is being handled without any problem or discrimination in real life.

        When I said Bollywood films don’t reflect the real society, I was making a point specifically about Bollywood films, not films in general, so your media studies lens doesn’t apply here. For instance, I would say that Malayalam films reflect Malayalam society much more closely than do Bollywood films reflect life in the Hindi speaking areas. This is actually something that is discussed quite often in Indian film critics’ circles, how Hindi films are generally much less (or not at all) “rooted” to any specific culture or region of India, while other language films are. This is also why directors like Vishal Baradwaj, Anurag Kashyap, and someone else (possibly Vikramaditya Motwane) are credited with making more “rooted” films, because they come from small towns, and not Mumbai, and especially not from SoBo (South Bombay), the playground of the rich from which many other Bollywood industry people are drawn,and they bring that real life experience and sensibility to their films. So this is one time where you have to go beyond your film/media studies academic training, or possibly outside of it, and look at things in a different perspective.

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        • And this thing about Muslims is not “something that people don’t even notice”, it’s something they skip over because it has become such a cliche that their eyes and ears glaze over when it occurs in the film, because at this point in time, it serves no purpose whatsoever. As for the essentialist thing, I already said the film seems to be terribly written. 🙂

          (Another fake “sensitivity” in my view, is having the Muslim characters played by Hindu actors, and the Hindu characters played by Muslim actors, not because they were the best fit, but because the film makers wanted to prove how “secular” they were. Blech.)

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  3. Pingback: Happy Birthday Akshay! 50 Reasons I Love you, Part 2 | dontcallitbollywood

  4. Pingback: Film Reviews | dontcallitbollywood

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