Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review: Baby

Neeraj Pandey’s films are a mixture of old school Bollywood formula, slickly modern execution and occasionally intense suspense that doesn't skimp on social commentary and bombastic tones. His films don’t have clueless idiots with walkie talkies pretending to be commandoes. They have reasonably realistic depiction of police work and ludicrous ‘holy cow that was awesome’ thrills.

His latest venture Baby is another perfectly outlandish and white knuckled action thriller - a seemingly intelligent but cleverly mindless piece of well-oiled escapism that delivers several crowd-pleasing moments of action mayhem. And Pandey does it in such style and a breakneck pace that one can't help but enjoy the ride. Sure, most of the plot points in Baby come dangerously close to the utter stupidity found in films like Holiday, and various action beats will get your eyeballs rolling, but it’s very entertaining. It’s also a rare piece of event cinema - because how many Akshay Kumar movies turn out to be anything besides awful?

Baby is supposedly based on real life missions and characters, but the disclaimer before the movie mentions that all characters and events in the film are fictitious. It’s probably Pandey pulling the prank that the Coens did in Fargo, but more on that later.

We’re introduced to the grave and grim voiceover of Danny as Feroze Khan, the chief of a super-secret-undercover-counter intelligence-rapid action-surveillance savvy-first encounter-assault recon-I spy-antiterrorist unit named Baby. Feroze tells us that Baby has been the most successful force against Pakistan based terrorism, and since 2008 it has dismantled several terrorist attacks in the country. The film chronicles Baby’s final mission, starring Akshay Kumar as Ajay chasing Kay Kay’s Kasab-like escaped terrorist Bilal Khan. Ajay’s hunt for Bilal takes him (and us) through seedy streets in Bombay, the bylanes of Turkey, the mountains of Nepal, and the desert sand of the Saudi Arabia. Also in the mix is a nutty, India bashing, hate spewing Mullah Maulana Mohammad (played by Pakistani actor Rasheed Naz), a not so subtle derivation of LeT’s Zaki ur Rehman Lakhwi.

If you thought Special 26 seemed threadbare, Baby ups the body count and delivers the goods when it comes to gritty action, non-stop thrills, mood and style. What mainly works here is the sense of urgency and Pandey’s ballsy choice of weeding out the unnecessary bullshit. Our hero sticks to the mission instead of veering out for a few item numbers, and even though he’s larger than life he remains in a fairly realistic mode, doing fairly believable (for Bollywood standards) things. This is a mainstream film but there is no slo mo bullet time rubbish. There’s some interesting hand-to-hand combat, and Pandey somehow manages to still make all the grittiness and realism work on the commercial level. It’s quite refreshing to see a film that caters to its target audience and at least tries to not insult it.

There’s not a dull moment here, save for one hopelessly horrible song in an equally awful love track (Pandey did the same in Special 26 as well). The love track is thankfully short and we’re thrown right back into a cocktail of bombastic chase scenes and espionage stuff. To fill the rather large 140 minute runtime there are enough catchy sequences, and also the unintentional hilarity of head-scratchingly stupid moments that stretch the material beyond the realm of plausibility:

Bilal makes a daring escape from the police van in broad daylight, in the middle of a completely deserted Marine Drive, after leisurely shooting three cops and walking away. Anyone who’s been to Bombay knows that the only time you’d find a deserted main road is during the Rapture.

There’s also a scene where Feroze explains to the CM how Pakistani terror organisations are breeding home grown terrorists in India, much to the CM’s shock. One would imagine the CM would be well aware of the most basic security threat to the country. I presume Pandey actually uses that scene to render the message to the Akshay’s usual audience.

Speaking of which, Akshay deserves credit for choosing such a project and making it work. He’s got his usual cocksure swagger, his impressive athletic prowess and he manages to restrain himself pretty well during the dramatic beats. He even hurls a few one-liners in hilariously passive ways. If only he’d stopped himself from giving into his desire to display his jumping abilities.

Adding some much-welcome layer to a very standard character, Taapsee Pannu is rather fun as Ajay’s team member who kicks a lot of ass during her mission. Her violent encounter with Sushant Singh’s shady businessman makes, very crowd pleasingly, the first case of women empowerment of 2015. Kudos also to Pandey for delivering action scenes that are visually slick, cohesive and also narratively consistent. Most desi films lazily do quick cuts to cheat their way through so it’s nice to sit back and watch the onscreen tension unfold.

A rewatchable thriller can spark conversations about how unexpected some scenes were, but most of the conversations following Baby will consist of how true the film actually was. On one hand we’re expected to simply take everything at face value, assume the anti terrorist unit and the mission in the film are real, and on the other hand we're also made to digest the vast amount of very obvious creative liberty. It’s the self-contradictory narrative that also plagued D Day and Madras Café. So no matter whether you like the film or not, it’s hard to deem Pandey a thought provoking filmmaker because Baby seems a lot sillier a few hours after you see it. It’s right to deem Pandey as a smart commercial filmmaker then, because Baby is a film that exists for the singular purpose of rendering two and a half hours of slickly crafted and frequently outlandish thrills. And just like Ajay Singh himself, the movie doesn't stop until its mission is complete. Just plug some cotton in your ears though, the music is loud enough to wake up the dead.

(First published in Firstpost)

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