Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tiger Zinda Hai: Review

Screenwriting can’t be easy, but surely it isn’t as difficult as Tiger Zinda Hai makes it out to be. Here’s a sparkling exchange from late in the film. The CIA director calls RAW officer Shenoy (Girish Karnad) and tells him: “You have 30 minutes.” “I need more time,” Shenoy protests. “I can only give you 30 minutes.” A stop-clock is set up in the RAW office, counting down from 30. Shenoy calls his men in Ikrit, Iraq. “You have 30 minutes.” “Only 30 minutes?” they ask. “Yes, only 30 minutes.”

Ali Abbas Zafar’s film is five times 30 minutes long, and you aren’t getting any of that back. This is a sequel to Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012), which starred Salman Khan as a RAW agent who goes by Tiger (he got the name, he explains in this film, because wounded tigers are dangerous) and Katrina Kaif as Pakistani ISI operative Zoya. When a group of Indian and Pakistani nurses are taken hostage by ISC (a stand-in for ISIS) in Ikrit, there’s only one man for the job. That man is hiding out in the Austrian Alps, living the retired-superspy life with Zoya and a cub. By way of reintroduction, Tiger fights off a pack of wolves with a stick because his son asks him not to kill them. Touching scene, given Khan’s historical fondness for wildlife.

With only seven days to evacuate the nurses before the Americans bomb the city, Tiger puts a team together: sniper (Paresh Pahuja), bomb disposal expert (Angad Bedi), tech wiz (Kumud Mishra). They’re joined – this really shouldn’t come as a surprise – by Zoya and two ISI agents. Tiger has to get India and Pakistan to work together: a story strand with some potential, wasted on a film only interested in the broad and the bland. Soon, we’re hurtling from one long, unpersuasive action sequence to another, all of it slathered with throbbing techno and sprinkled with more incisive writing (“Do you have a backup plan? A plan B?” Shenoy is asked, as if they’re different things).

Tiger Zinda Hai plays like a cut-rate version of Airlift. Though it lacks the relative realism and superior craftsmanship of the 2016 Akshay Kumar-starrer (also about the evacuation of Indians in the Middle East), Zafar’s film has the same hyper-patriotic bent. Tiger refuses to eat anything other than Indian food in Austria; he reads Bhagat Singh bedtime stories to his son; he’s sent off to serve by Zoya, who says, “Everyone thinks you love me most in this world, but I know you love your country more.” Later in the film, when there’s a suggestion that the Pakistani nurses aren’t Tiger’s responsibility, we get a lecture about the values this nation is founded on. There’s also the running story of the sniper and the India flag he’s determined to fly once the mission is complete.

In Sultan, Zafar’s last film, Salman Khan cut an intriguingly weak figure. Tiger Zinda Hai has no room for imperfections: Khan’s chiselled torso, displayed in an action sequence, might be one of the better uses of CGI in the film. After the image-softening of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan and Tubelight, he’s back in two-fisted hero mode – and his fans were there, even at 8 in the morning, to show their appreciation. One viewer, a couple of seats behind me, was especially appreciative. “Woohoo,” he went when Khan mowed down a few dozen ISC soldiers with a machine gun. The unfurling of the Indian flag got a woohoo as well. But I could sense his hesitation when, seconds later, the Pakistani flag was raised.

In that split second, one could only imagine the questions that ran through his mind. Can one cheer for a Pakistani flag? Is it a test? Would Bhai approve? The tension was palpable. Then, “Woohoo!” And so ended 2017.

This review appeared in Mint.

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