Film: "Baby"; Actors: Akshay Kumar, K K Menon, Tapsee Pannu, Anupam Kher, Rana Daggubati, Mikaal Zulfikar, Rashid Naaz; Writer-Director: Neeraj Pandey; Rating: ****1/2
Don't move! The concept of the edge-of-the-seat thriller seems to have been invented for Neeraj Pandey's enormously engaging take on international terrorism. It takes guts to make a film which calls a spade a spade...Or Pakistan the hub of terrorism in the Asian subcontinent.
With "Baby", Pandey immediately and irreversibly joins the ranks of the finest contemporary filmmakers of our times.
Outwardly "Baby", with its theme of a bunch of bravehearts apprehending international terrorists at the risk of their own lives and their family's well being, has nothing to offer that we haven't seen in several films in the counter-terror genre before. What places "Baby" far above the routine thrillers is its refreshing lack of circumvention in the storytelling.
Straight away Pandey's film takes us inside the life of counter-terrorism expert Ajay (Akshay Kumar) as he grapples to locate a colleague who has been betrayed by one of their own and taken hostage by terrorists.
In "Baby" there is a palpable predilection for building unbearably suspenseful action sequences without losing the essential authenticity of the situation. All through the riveting drama, Ajay and his team (Tapsee Pannu, Rana Daggubati and other splendidly in-character actors who show up with him in different sections of the narrative) push the envelope of counter-terrorism without toppling into the abyss of self-congratulation.
We sense we are in the midst of a very important docu-drama on the violence of our times. A part of the film's edifying mood of bridled energy comes from Akshay Kumar's screen presence. He is in control, powerful and effective without throwing his muscles around the screen to prove his heroic stature.
One of the film's most interesting sub-texts is its attitude to heroism and machismo. Ajay and his team are doing a job. They want to do it as any professional. The difference lies in the mortality level: this hero and his team could get killed at any time. And you know what? They don't care!
Pandey keeps the proceedings tightly wound, and yet we never feel the weight of the epic plot as it coils and recoils through a labyrinth of subverted idealism and crushed diabolism. The narrative is structured as a spiral of dread, doom and a kind of romantic hope of heroic redemption from the cesspool of terror-violence that grips the world.
Though nothing in the film's design suggests any conscious attempt to create a mood-specific thriller, the film keeps us spellbound from first frame to last. Yes, the airport climax where our heroes (standing ovation for them is in order) make their getaway from a middle-eastern country seems inspired by Ben Affleck's "Argo". No harm in that...Creativity is never self-generated.
Helming, navigating and controlling this bridled exposition on anarchy is Akshay Kumar with his career's best performance. His interpretation of an unsung hero's stubborn determination to rescue the world from chaos, is mature and restrained, even when pitched against veteran actors with a formidable history of one-upmanship.
Watch him in the dexterously designed sequence where he exchanges ideological barbs with a terrorist Taufeeq (Jamal Khan).
Watch out for the solid supporting performances. Each actor, even in the smallest role, knows he is part of a work that attempts to project the grim reality of our violence-ridden world without losing the inherent cinematic quality in the narration. In various sections of the film Danny Denzongpa, Sushant Singh, Tapsee Pannu (as a desi Lara Croft, she is a delight), K K Menon and Anupam Kher appear to excel without trying to.
Rashid Raz as the rabble-rousing Pakistani radical leader with his eyeball-rolling act may seem over the top. But then whoever said religious fundamentalists were controlled in their emotions?
What could have been avoided is the over-punctuated background score by Sunjoy Choudhary which tries to pound every scene to a pulp. If the narrative escapes from the assault on the soundtrack it's because the timely plot gives us no room to crib over trespasses.
Pandey gets immense support from his technicians. Sudeep Chatterjee shoots every nook of the locations as though it were the end of the world. There is a throbbing urgency to every sequence. The editing (Sree Narayan Singh) does away with punctuation marks to create a seamless world where danger lurks in every corner and only the brave are allowed to survive.
"Baby" is one helluva roller-coaster ride . Miss it at your own risk.