Sharply written, smartly executed thrills
What to Expect
Indian cinema has mostly been far, far away from making a decently mounted mainstream action thriller (keyword: mostly). The reasons to this are many – from gratuitous music appearing out of nowhere to needless, pseudo-smart plot twists and the unending characters and their subplots ruining the pace of the film, there’s a lot the more discerning audience can take their pick from. Let’s also not forget the ever-so-mandatory romance the male protagonist will have at any cost. After all, he’d have to save her from the very people he’s waging a war against when they kidnap the damsel-in-distress, wouldn’t he?
Most of the Indian films that consist of action are a part of the inevitable “bouquet” film the Indian crowd lovingly addresses as the masala film. These films have something for everyone – romance for romance lovers, action for the lovers of (over-the-top) combats and gratuitously unreal shootouts, and of course, your imperative dance number objectifying the woman to no end for the kind of audience that – well – appreciates those. These potboiler films are easy to make (because they’re almost always adapted from another Indian film meant for people who speak a different language and have a different demographic), and easier for the producers to wage their bets on, because they’re almost always successful.
Baby, the new addition to the rather dim selection of action thrillers made in the past, screams difference relative to the others, however. I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t agree, simply because of the inclusion of its rather efficient auteur Neeraj Pandey. Setting his repertoire to heights nobody would have imagined with the rather unknown (pre-release) non-mainstream drama-thriller film A Wednesday!, which set the hearts of both the critics and the box office on fire, Pandey stepped his game up only to wait five more years for the research that went into his second film Special 26, which released in the first quarter of 2013 only to surprise the audience and the critics alike. It’s only fair, thus, that I went with nothing but mammoth expectations for this film, followed only by skepticism at my own excitement for it.
What’s it About?
An elite covert-ops team of four – Ajay (Akshay Kumar; Khakee), Priya (Taapsee Pannu), Jai (Rana Daggubati; Dum Maaro Dum) and Om Prakash (Anupam Kher; Bend it Like Beckham), wrapped aptly in the darkest secrecy possible, exists only under the pseudonym Baby (thus the rather awkward title placement). Headed by Feroze (Danny Denzongpa; Frozen), the team is on its biggest mission yet – tracking down the sinister branches of terror, marching down only toward the notorious Maulana Mohammed Rahman (Rasheed Naz; Khuda Kay Liye). As the members of the covert-ops group fight down each singular branch of it all, they realize soon enough that they might have bitten off more than they could chew.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Let’s first get the ugly out of the way. Sanjoy Chowdhury’s background score is an ear sore, gratuitously forcing itself in more scenes than is necessary. On the other hand, the only rather low-key musical number by Koduri “M. M. Kreem” Keeravaani that appears in the film’s runtime isn’t bad to hear, despite being a rather unnecessary addition in the big picture. Additionally, for an action thriller made on such a scale, the film’s flow is hampered by two extremely poor visual effects shots that are shoddily composited, lazy pieces of work.
Here’s the thing though: leaving those things aside, the film’s a rather sharply made covert-ops action thriller that is a thrill ride for the audience. French stunt co-ordinator Cyril Rafaelli (also an occasional actor; District B13) lends his expertise to the impressive hand-to-hand combat sequences that ground most of the action set-pieces to a rather realistic realm. They’re rough around the edges, but heck; this is some of the most intense combatting I’ve witnessed in any movie in the language in the past four years when relative to the beaten one-versus-twenty set-piece formula that’s continually used in your much loved mass-directed potboiler. The shootouts are calm and swift, and thankfully not overdramatized. Couple this with some absolutely dynamic camerawork, directed and framed to perfection by cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, and you’ve got yourself an exceptionally slick looking action film that the Indian audience wouldn’t seen in a while from a film in the Hindi language (the last of the kind was the wildly popular, slightly more blockbuster-driven Shahrukh Khan starrer Don 2). It’s nice to see that most of the action sequences have a lot of consistency when it comes to visual capture and color grading. each shot seamlessly merges with the other, in comparison to another Kumar starrer Holiday, which had action that literally ruined it with the inclusion of shots compiled from more than two different cameras without as much of effort put into color grading the shots to look similar to each other. The production design is terrific, shifting between locations with reason more than as a tourism commercial type. Shree Narayan Singh’s edit keeps in check the continuity and rhythm between two consecutive scenes as much as possible. Keeping the pace in check, he doesn’t bow down to the super-cut frenzy a lot of people unfortunately do (yes, we’re looking at you, Taken 3). Additionally, the parallel edits are near-flawless, and – in one scene particularly – hits the nail right on the head with the desired element of humor infused into it almost effortlessly.
All of this technical wizardry wouldn’t be of much use sans the story. And the story is good. Save for some hard-brakes in the form of the uninspiring subplot of the protagonist’s wife continuing to appear more than the movie deserves, the film runs in a surprisingly consistent flow that many might confuse for “dull” for the way it moves in the first half. When the second half picks up from where the first left off, however, the audience has a mighty chance of appreciating the consistency; more so, where it’s coming from. Characters are fleshed out pretty well – even the ones that don’t appear much. Kumar’s Ajay is a very nuanced, restrained character who’s more of a person that takes action, and Pandey’s writing and direction give you the required leverage to believe that this is a real, flesh-and-blood character. And for a conventional female (Madhurima Tuli playing Kumar’s wife) you’ve got another completely unconventional one for more reasons than one. Pannu’s Priya is a soft spoken agent who looks pretty harmless, except she can kick serious ass while wearing your everyday salwar-kameez, leaving you knocked out before you know what happened. Where did the mandatory “sexy-badass” leather attire go?
Like his writing, when it comes to unconventional casting that supports what he’s come up with, trust Pandey and his casting team to be happy with some of the most radical decisions he can make in a film. The stereotype of a young tach-savvy hacker is brushed aside to allow an older character to do the job.
Like a boss.
The one minor issue I’m picking on here is its attempt to cover up some words through ADR (dubbing). Apart from how cheesy it looks on screen, it contradicts its own self, considering how politically incorrect it already is. This, coupled with the rather uninspiring stereotyping of bits and pieces of the movie’s antagonistic side and some indirect xenophobia make the film a considerably less-than-perfect product. For a nitpick, the climactic scene feels like a mild throwback to the Affleck directed Academy Award winning Argo. Considering how much the Hindi industry has unforgivably plagiarized in the past, this, on the other hand, feels more like a tribute to how much of an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride the original climactic scene was in itself. Although not as tension driven as the original, this version works very much in favor of how the film has been mounted.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Akshay Kumar and Danny Denzongpa provide for powerhouse performances. Anupam Kher is great with his comic timing and his performative nuances. Madhurima Tuli (Warning) is very confident, and has a comfortable chemistry with Kumar for the few scenes she’s in. It’s quite fortunate that she’s been given winning dialogues that are more grounded than most films go. Rasheed Naz has exactly two credible scenes (the rest are mainly appearances), but his presence is felt throughout the film. Kay Kay Menon, for his dynamic talent, has unfortunately been given the short end of the stick. Sushant Singh (Yeh Saali Zindagi) is a nice surprise to the film, balancing subtle humor, sinisterness and rage through his role’s runtime pretty well. Taapsee Pannu is yet another surprise addition. Mikaal Zulfiqaar (Shoot on Sight) is absolutely terrific. This regular in Pakistan’s television scene handles a superior performance in the second half of the film, bringing with his character a sense of class. Murali Sharma (13B) hits bullseye with his obnoxious minister’s secretary; his intentional hilarity nuanced and well-timed.
I’d love to have said that this is a major step forward in Indian Hindi-language action thriller scene, but with a director like Neeraj Pandey, who changed the face of the Indian non-mainstream thriller scene with his surprisingly sharp debut, that was quite expected of him anyway. Amongst a horde of turds dropping by the commercial Indian Hindi-language film scene, this is a relatively specific action film that has a horde of interesting characters, heady action set pieces, superiorly timed humor and a story that moves at a consistent pace. Although quite an imperfect film (I may be nitpicking here), Baby ends up being a deliriously enjoyable action thriller that pays a lot more attention-to-detail on character motivations and action set-pieces than your usual subpar fare. A step short of being technically superior, this is still a very, very stylish film that will make you sit up and notice throughout the film’s runtime.
Despite its flaws, this one’s absolutely recommended for people who love watching Hindi-language films.
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