Baby Hindi Movie Review
Neeraj Pandey's 'A Wednesday!' came out in 2008, a low-budget, hardly publicized film that went on to achieve cult status in Hindi cinema. It was a slick, stylish yet tightly woven film that remains India's best take on terrorism even after 7 years of its release.
Pandey followed it up 5 years later with "Special 26", a bigger budgeted, well publicized film that was disappointing in just about every department. The film always assumed itself to be much smarter than it actually was, which was exactly the opposite of Pandey's first film. I've always maintained that budgets spoil directors, and they end up making mistakes because they have a lot more money to play with than they really need.
This week's release "Baby" marks a return to form for the talented writer/director, who returns to his wheelhouse with a film on counter-terrorism. The plot focuses on Special Ops officer Ajay Singh Rajput, who leads a top secret team of operatives called Baby.
The film opens in Turkey, where Ajay is able to track down a defector and obtain information that is instrumental in foiling a terrorist attack in the heart of the Indian capital. This marks the beginning of his mission to take down the terrorist cell that is determined to strike fear in the hearts of Indian citizens.
The film doesn't manage to get off to the most brilliant start, especially with the sequences in Turkey. There is very little attention to detail, with the posture, stance and even handling of guns during the action scenes, and the tactics and mode of operation by no means belong to a highly trained Special Ops officer. To add to that, there is hardly a sense of intensity or urgency about the circumstances that the characters find themselves in. The film is also strongly reminiscent of Ridley Scott's espionage thriller Body of Lies in terms of style and setting during these portions.
The interval also works against the film. You can understand Pandey wanting to build the momentum slowly, setting up the plot nicely to take off once the dominos start falling. Without any stoppages, the film could've carried on doing just that, with the audience being none the wiser. But with a clearly demarcated interval point, you realize that the first half of the film has gone by without much happening, without any excitement or any fresh, out-of-the-box ideas.
Things start to get interesting when the action moves to Nepal in the second half, leading to the capture of Sushant Singh's character. The subsequent covert operation in Saudi is when the film manages to fully take off, building up tension and momentum, and raising the stakes of the situation at hand. In the final hour or so, the film is highly "inspired" by Ben Affleck's Argo, with the main focus shifting to getting out of the country alive.
Despite any shortfall in pacing or attention to detail, one thing that I would be remiss to not praise is the film's affinity for creating dramatic moments. Never mind the originality of the last half hour, the film still has to make the source material its own, which it manages to do rather well. That achievement is, however, carefully counterbalanced with the rote, by-the-numbers dialogues that include more than its fare share of cliche patriotic speeches. Words like covert, secret, honeytrap are thrown around every once in a while to made sure you realize that it's a film about counter-terrorism and espionage.
One department where the film misses the mark is character development. All the other characters revolve around Akshay Kumar's Ajay, with popular actors like Kay Kay Menon and Sushant Singh brought in for just a scene or two at most. Anupam Kher and Rana Dagubatti come into play only during the last hour of the film, although Anupam Kher is pretty effective even in a small role, bringing in comic relief. The only other actor apart from Akshay who gets any substantial importance is Danny Denzongpa, who plays Akshay's commanding officer, but is actually an agreeable sort of chap who tends to let Akshay decide the plan of action than make any decisions himself.
With such a strong emphasis on Akshay Kumar, a performance on the level of the one he gave in Special 26 would've sunk the film without a trace. Thankfully, Akshay rises to the challenge and gives a surprisingly restrained performance, and even manages to keep the humor subtle, something which is not his strong suit. He is literally present in every single scene of the film, and while his performance may not be one that you'll remember for a long time to come, it's one that might gain him some respect and credibility in the eyes of the audience.
Going the way of a globe-trotting espionage thriller could've gone horribly wrong, the way the extremely talented Sriram Raghavan messed up with Agent Vinod (budgets spoil directors). But Neeraj Pandey manages to keep his ambition in check, both as a writer and as a director. He tries to keep things simple plot-wise, sometimes even too simple. But it's better to have stayed grounded than imploding trying to soar skywards. He keeps the action contained to the soldiers on the ground, rather than trying to make use of technology and advanced gadgetry a la James Bond.
Pandey manages to run a tight ship and molds a reasonably smart film within the realms of commercial cinema. In the final tally, the film manages to tick more boxes than it crosses out, putting it firmly in the win column for both star Akshay Kumar and director Neeraj Pandey. Baby is by far the best Hindi film to have come out this year, although considering the competition and today's date, that might not be much of an achievement.
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