Yeh toh puri army lekar aa gaye hai,” a scared Indian nurse says at one point as she looks out of the window and sees ISIS troops landing up in droves at a hospital in Iraq where she and her colleagues have been held captive.
“Ghabrao mat,” says her companion, an Indian RAW agent, “abhi Tiger zinda hai.”
Literally translated, those last three words — which are also this film’s title — simply mean that someone called Tiger is alive. But since this is conventional commercial Bollywood fare and the aforesaid Tiger is played by a certain Mister Salman Khan, they are also a metaphor for “all is well with the world kyunki (to borrow and adapt a signature phrase from the works of another iconic Khan) Salman hai naa“.
How foolish are the governments, policy analysts, intelligence agencies and academics of the world investing time and money in figuring out how to bring ISIS to its knees. They should have known that the solution lies in the muscular arms and golden heart of a character played by Salman.
Tiger Zinda Hai‘s strength is that it is unapologetic about its stupidity. And so, although it is for the most part simplistic in the socio-political statements it lays on thick, it is packed with so much action that it ends up being a fun, even if clichéd, Bollywood-and-Bond-style masala flick which, if you are looking closely enough, does make a subversive point or two.
Director Ali Abbas Zafar’s film is a sequel to Kabir Khan’s 2012 hit Ek Tha Tiger in which Salman played Indian espionage agent Avinash Singh Rathore a.k.a. Manish Chandra a.k.a. Tiger who, while on a mission, falls in love with a Pakistani spy called Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Tiger Zinda Hai continues where Ek Tha Tiger left off. Zoya and Avinash have quit their respective agencies and are now living in hiding along with their son Junior. Their calm life is interrupted when RAW seeks Tiger’s help to free a bunch of Indian nurses who have been taken as hostages in Iraq.
The opening text acknowledges that the film is inspired by true events. The reference here is to an episode in 2014 involving 46 Indian nurses who were held at a hospital in Tikrit, caught between ISIS and Iraqi government forces. This remarkable real life drama was chronicled beautifully by Mollywood earlier this year in Take Off Starring Parvathy, Kunchacko Boban and Fahadh Faasil. The Malayalam film though was told through the eyes of one of the nurses who was at the forefront of coordinating with the Indian Embassy in Iraq and ultimately helped get herself and her colleagues back to India. Bollywood’s take on this well-documented episode from our contemporary history sets this woman firmly aside (along with the embassy, the governments of India and Kerala) and puts a single man at the centre of the action instead.
If you have seen the sobre, credible, realistic yet supremely entertaining Take Off you may understand why Tiger Zindagi Hai feels so ridiculous in comparison and so shamefully male-centric. It took considerable strength of will this morning to put that film out of my mind while I watched Tiger take centre stage and make a meal of ISIS. (For the record, ISIS is called ISC here, and Tikrit is Ikrit.) I was rewarded for my efforts with humour — some intentional, some not — and intermittent adrenaline rushes.
Both Salman and Katrina are limited actors, but they are charismatic and pleasing to the eyes here as always. Katrina is convincing enough in her action scenes to make you wonder why it has not occurred to any Bollywood director to cast her along with perhaps Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra in an all-out action flick centred around women. Salman has been heavy on his feet in recent years, but a combination of well-planned stunt choreography and clever camerawork ensures that we are not aware of that at any point in this film, unlike in Ek Tha Tiger in which he looked visibly tired.
Tiger Zinda Hai is a slick production (though the background score’s jarring resemblance to Don’s music is distracting) and the fisticuffs in it are enjoyable. It also clearly means well in most political matters even though it feels the need to underline its messaging repeatedly and plays to the gallery in an India that is increasingly demanding chest-thumping proof of patriotism from all its citizens and is openly suspicious of minority communities.
So, Tiger and the other characters stress and re-stress their love for India with lines such as this one from Zoya: “Sab log samajhte hai ki duniya mein sabse zyaada pyaar tum mujhse karte ho lekin mujhe pata hai ki tum mujhse bhi zyaada apne desh se pyaar karte ho” (everyone thinks that you love me the most in this world, but I know that you love your country even more than you love me). Tiger’s Muslim colleague gives triple evidence of his desh prem. And since the audience cannot be trusted to appreciate that theirs is a culturally disparate team, we are reminded of its Hindu-Muslim-Sikh composition in a pointed exchange between Tiger and his teammate (Angad Bedi) about what it means to be a sardar. We should have seen that coming considering that early on, in a scene in which Katrina’s Zoya bashes up a bunch of goons, the writer felt the need to throw in a character dispensing a line about this being an example of women’s empowerment. Does an audience that supports dumbed-down cinema lose the right to complain about spoonfeeding? Perhaps.
To be fair, Tiger Zinda Hai is not as tacky or loud as Gadar, a film it references with a mention of Sunny Deol’s infamous handpump-uprooting scene in which he scared off the entire Pakistan Army with a bellow.
Tiger inhabits a Bollywood that has evolved to a stage where Pakistanis can now be shown as allies in the face of a common enemy, and one character, when confronted over Pakistan’s wrongdoings in Kashmir, gets away with implying that India’s hands are not clean either. Considering the divisive times we live in, even this fleeting scene, sadly, is an act of courage that needs to be lauded, as does another contrived passage involving national flags that pushes the envelope up to a point (though without crossing a certain line). Even the ISC members we meet are not entirely satanic.
Tiger Zinda Hai’s supporting cast is a mixed bag. Kumud Mishra manages to be comical without allowing his comedy to become incongruous in this grim setting. Paresh Rawal, however, overdoes his villainous labour contractor. The handsome Angad Bedi is impressive in a small role that does not challenge him as much as last year’s Pink but still reminds us that this man is hero material.
Tiger Zinda Hai is not a film that is meant to be taken too seriously. I mean c’mon, Salman/Tiger takes off his shirt for no reason at all to give ISC/ISIS and us a generous view of his fabulously toned and oiled torso and arms in a scene that does not even bother to offer a logical excuse for his shirtlessness.
And after engineering the escape of those nurses, Tiger and Zoya dance to an item song playing along with the credits. I laughed through these two stereotypical scenes because by this point I had given up gasping with exasperation and had surrendered myself to the idiosyncrasies and ludicrousness of the genre (the genre being Bollywood masala). If you can see Tiger Zinda Hai for what it is, you too may not mind its unabashed blend of swag, silliness and schmaltz.