Taapsee Pannu's role in Naam Shabana is an indication of the new Hindi film heroine’s clout
Naam Shabana is — in a way — a coronation of Taapsee Pannu as an icon for Bollywood’s newfound love for onscreen feminism.
The decision of the makers of the 2015 surprise hit, Baby to explore the genesis of the character played by Taapsee Pannu in a spin-off prequel, Naam Shabana might surprise some but scratch a little and you’d see a different picture.
Traditional Bollywood mentality would have you believe that a prequel or a sequel to Baby would have retained Akshay Kumar as the protagonist but making the second film with the character that Kumar played in the original would essentially end up being the same film. Similarly, had the second installment in the franchise followed any other male character, say for instance Rana Daggubati’s Jai Singh Rathore, it might have fallen short in terms of star-power when compared to the original. But Naam Shabana — that traces the journey of Pannu’s character to the point where we saw her in Baby — is both a testimony to the fact that the universe created in the film Baby can extend beyond the single story and also an indication of the new Hindi film heroine’s clout.
In many ways, Naam Shabana is also a sign of Bollywood getting used to the idea of thinking outside the proverbial box. Just a few years ago Baby’s sequel would have meant Akshay Kumar reprising his Ajay Singh Rajput role and being packed off on a new mission where, much like Ethan Hunt of the Mission: Impossible series or Agent 007 from the James Bond franchise, he would be supported by a whole new cast. The chance of such a concept working is far from improbable but at the same time in an Indian context, it would lose its novelty.
In a departure from the norm, the inclusion of Kumar in a parallel story with a Taapsee Pannu at the center of Naam Shabana is a winning proposition on all fronts. For starters, it offers the same-same-but-different experience for a fraction of the cost. Made on a budget of approximately Rs 10-15 crore as opposed to Baby’s cost of nearly Rs 60 crore, Naam Shabana is a worthwhile business proposition and moreover, with Pannu in the lead, it also becomes a hatke film that would open up newer vistas. But more than anything, Naam Shabana is — in a way — a coronation of Taapsee Pannu as an icon for Bollywood’s newfound love for onscreen feminism.
It would not be totally incorrect to say that Naam Shabana might not have been made had it not been for Pannu. In the years between Baby and Naam Shabana thanks to Pink, Pannu has gone from being just another supporting actor to a full-fledged star in her own right. Following the release of Pink, Pannu has in a silent manner carved out a space for herself that is not just singularly her own but also nearly peerless. The manner in which Pink addressed the concept of a woman’s consent transcended the boundaries of the film and for the first time entered the collective consciousness of the audience. Its success also initiated a debate on consent and Pannu, who in the true sense of the word top-lined the film’s cast, has come to personify the change that Bollywood is experiencing towards the onscreen depiction of women. There is no debate that Bollywood is a long, long way from imbibing the basic tenets of gender sensitivity as well as gender equality both on as well as off screen but one can’t undermine what Pink has managed in a very short period of time. Some believe that the so-called post-Pink awakening is but a cosmetic change much like the revival of Gandhian philosophy post-Lage Raho Munnabhai’s ‘Gandhigiri’ or the resurgence of hockey post-Chak De! India. Yet, when seen in the light of a film such as Avinash Das’ Anarkali Araahwali (that like Pink looks at consent in a different setting) this is an indicator of small — albeit significant — step towards a long overdue change.
This is an interesting phase for the female protagonist in popular Hindi cinema and the presence of talents such as Kangana Ranaut, Alia Bhatt, Taapsee Pannu, Swara Bhaskar, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chaddha, and Radhika Apte makes it alluring.
This is a phase where irrespective of the format or the genre, the Hindi film heroine is not only getting roles that deviate from the standard Hindi film heroine template (Queen, Udta Punjab, Masaan, etc.) but also perhaps for the first time, films are being written for them that defy the typical Bollywood ‘women-centric’ prototype (Naam Shabana, Anarkali Araahwali, Dear Zindagi, etc.).
The obsession that popular Hindi cinema has with tying up all loose ends before the film is over has undermined the real-life struggle that people undertake and nowhere does this reel-real difference become more prominent than the cinematic depiction of crimes against women. One of the biggest criticisms that Pink faced was that in the end like many Hindi films it is the ‘man’, in this case, the one portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan, the lawyer Deepak Sehgal who comes out of retirement to fight Minal’s (Taapsee Panu) case in the court, who sets things right. Irrespective of its cinematic shortcomings or the lack of complete authenticity, Pink emerged to be an important, and timely film.
Pannu has more than struck a chord with the viewers as seen from the manner in which people have responded to Pink. In one instance a fan, Shristhi Mitra, wrote to her thanking her for taking the first step of change even though the “complete transformation of the society will take some time.” Pannu has continued to share her views on issues such as consent and men-women relationships in the present times by featuring in videos such as ‘Yes Na Yes No Naati No’ and ‘BI Aww’.
Naam Shabana might not have enjoyed the same degree of critical praise that was showered on both Pink and Baby but with an opening of Rs 21 crore, which, to say the least, is good, showed that an Akshay Kumar’s presence notwithstanding Taapsee Pannu and the heroine she represents can more than frontline a conventional film.
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