A central minister’s smug personal secretary unthinkingly belittles the sacrifices of India’s brave spies.
As his boss looks on, the protagonist, an undercover agent who revels in playing with danger, gets up from his seat, walks up to the door, shuts it, walks back to the impertinent official and slaps him.
The act sums up this film’s firm belief that the ‘heroism’ of the violent ‘patriot’ is not to be trifled with.
But there is no way of telling if this scene is meant to be merely funny, or does it have the greater purpose of eliciting applause for the cool insouciance of the no-nonsense hero?
Baby, written and directed by Neeraj Pandey, is a tricky film in more ways than one.
It might have been hailed as just another innocuous, smartly-packaged, competently shot espionage thriller if only the politics at its heart not been so dangerously dodgy.
Early in the film, the unstoppable spy hisses: “I can do anything.” A little later, the terror mastermind he is up against declares: “India cannot do anything”.
So, in this all-out everything-or-nothing battle, the onus falls squarely on the invincible hero to prove the enemies of the nation wrong.
In the bargain, the courageous man of action, under official but covert orders, scythes down everything and everyone that comes in his way.
The point that Baby seems to make is that it isn’t just trained killing machines, but also the nation as a whole, that can, and should, do ‘anything’, collateral damage be damned.
The hero barges into minority localities, uses extra-legal methods to extract confessions and leads from suspects, and eliminates anybody who is remotely troublesome.
Baby unabashedly reinforces the mainstream media’s worst stereotypes and constantly plays on the collective fears of a populace that is only too willing to find and hang scapegoats for the troubles of our contentious times.
What makes Baby doubly problematic is that it presents the story as a reflection of reality, and not just as a piece of fiction.
There are umpteen references to 26/11, the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, and to other actual figures and incidents that have made the headlines in recent times.
When the film opens, a crack team of 12 secret agents is down to just four, and Operation Baby – the name stems from the fact that the counter-terrorism mission is meant to run for only five years – is now on its last legs.
Maulana Mohammed Rehman (Rasheed Naz), modelled on the real-life Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, is planning a big terror strike in India.
Ajay Singh Rajput (Akshay Kumar), right hand man of counter-terrorism strategist Feroz Ali Khan (Danny Denzongpa), traverses the globe to thwart the conspiracy.
In the bargain, he has to contend with enemies without and rivals within the ranks.
Baby has actors of the calibre of Kay Kay Menon, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa and Sushant Singh in the cast. Thrown together into a tedious storyline, they can do little to make it work.
Baby is a dreary drama that meanders from one action sequence to another without making the audience any wiser.
The only scene that is mildly surprising involves a female agent (Taapsee Pannu) giving a terror suspect a taste of her fighting prowess.
It becomes amply clear where Baby is headed when, right at the outset, Indian spy Rakesh is mercilessly pummeled in Istanbul by rogue agent Jamal and his accomplices.
But even as our man Ajay sends the Taufiqs, Bilals and Javeds of the world scurrying for cover, there is that token patriotic Indian Muslim hovering in the background – the hero’s unwavering superior who calls the shots from Delhi.
And there is, for good measure, a contrite Muslim, too. A young engineer, after a stint in a terrorist training camp, has a change of heart and decides to help the cause of the undercover agents.
Baby also has one blazing confrontation scene that might particularly thrill the new saffron-tinged censor board.
A terrorist tells the hero that in the religion column of government forms he writes MUSLIM in bold and capital letters.
The agent responds with a story about how he fought for 24 hours to save a Muslim family during the Gujarat riots.
He then goes on to stress that on government forms he writes INDIAN, in bold and capital letters.
One can only cringe. Baby is a superficial cinematic condensation of the shrill television images, newspaper headlines and communally-charged political posturing that we are subjected to day in and day out. Who needs more?