Tiger Zinda Hai: The Zero Hero Film

 Screenshot from YouTube

Screenshot from YouTube

It was around the 15-minute mark that I found myself wondering whether I have completely lost it. I was watching Tiger Zinda Hai, Salman Khan's Christmas release and the film on which many Bollywood prayers are pinned;  and I wasn't hating it. Despite the fact that I'd scampered to the theatre in the hope of watching a film that would be so awful that it's entertaining, I was actually enjoying myself. There was a plot and it was moving at a steady, confident trot. The locations looked credible. The cinematography was sharp. My radar for dishy men had spotted a villain whose hotness couldn't be entirely hidden by a large, bushy beard and voluminous robes. Instead of eye-rolling mightily, I was reaching for the popcorn (though that might be because it was time for elevensies). And then I realised why — despite this being a Salman Khan film, Bhai was nowhere in sight.

Soon enough, however, the man made an entry, and I heaved a sigh of relief. Here were the ludicrous plot details, bad acting and sheer stupidity that I associate with Khancapades. While the film took a battering, the universe righted itself and I couldn't help but wonder whether Bollywood's ageing stars are actually holding the entire industry back.  

In an ideal world, Tiger Zinda Hai would be about the uneasy relationship between a nurse, who becomes the de facto leader of a group of hostages, and a terrorist leader, who is as charismatic as he is violent. Their paths intersect when he is injured in an encounter and taken to the hospital where the nurse works. She takes care of him, partly because that's her job and because he's got trigger-happy henchmen. As she tends to his wounds, a strange intimacy develops between them. They find common grounds, but his beliefs and bloodlust ensure they keep each other at a distance. Meanwhile, a daring covert operation is being mounted to save the nurse and other hostages. 

Of course, this can't be a Salman Khan film because Bhai doesn't play bad guys in the reel world. Being human is what he does off screen, after all. 

Since the world is not ideal, Tiger Zinda Hai's lead pair are not the terrorist and the nurse, but two spies whose idea of maintaining a low profile includes thrashing criminals on camera and splashing tubs of paint on the pristine white snow of the Alps to make a portrait that could probably be seen from the International Space Station. Traditionally, Bollywood's devotion to stars results in scripts that showcase a hero and make him the reason to watch a film. His punchlines, punches and swagger are what hold the film together. When he's not on screen, the plot stagnates, the dialogues are forgettable, and the supporting cast (including the heroine, in many cases) are fillers. Tiger Zinda Hai is different. Here's a blockbuster that uses the hero almost like the infamous item girl. Most of the time, Khan surfaces like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland. With a performance that's about as alert and animated as the dormouse's, Khan successfully slows the film down and makes it ludicrous. More often than not, when Tiger is nowhere in the picture, the film is fun, dramatic and eventful. He shows up and the film goes from Hollywood-slick to Bollywood ick. If Tiger Zinda Hai wasn't saddled with Khan's expressionless face and lumbering presence, it could have actually been a decent masala film powered by Katrina Kaif's athletic prowess, Sajjad Delafrooz's smouldering villain routine, a solid supporting cast and efficient use of familiar action-movie clichés. As it stands, the film see-saws between entertaining and laughable. If this film works at the box office, it will be on the strength of its story, which, sadly, was sacrificed at the altar of Salman Khan.  

Tiger Zinda Hai is a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger and offers audiences the assurance that Khan as the R&AW agent Tiger has come out of retirement. Set in a fictitious town in Iraq (and shot mostly in Morocco and Abu Dhabi) with interludes in New Delhi, Innsbruck, Langley and desert dunes, the film ostensibly pits Tiger against the charismatic and bloodthirsty terrorist leader, Abu Osman (Delicious, sorry, Delafrooz). He heads a group that is obviously modelled on IS and he provokes America by assassinating an American journalist-spy. He also takes 40 Indian and Pakistani nurses hostage in a hospital. America doesn't give two hoots about the brown people, but in response to the journalist's murder, an airstrike is planned to blitz the hospital.

At this juncture, Girish Karnad as RAW chief Shenoy shows up in Langley with a breathing tube attached to his nose. It's possibly to get sympathy votes since his blah lines aren't likely to persuade anyone to give him time of day. Whatever the reason, a CIA operative promises Shenoy that they'll give India a week to get the nurses out before carrying out the airstrike. 

There is, of course, only one person who can execute a mission like this: Tiger (Khan). He happens to be "in hiding" — though considering how much of a spectacle Tiger and his wife Zoya (Kaif) are making of themselves on a regular basis, shame on ISI and RAW for not being able to locate them. That said, they find Tiger and Zoya quickly enough when things get hairy so maybe the agencies had just disowned the duo for being embarrassingly cheesy. While living the regular civilian life in Innsbruck of all places, Tiger makes ginormous portraits of Zoya on Alpine snow and clears out entire streets to set up a romantic dinner a deux. Zoya goes shopping for tinda and thwacks the bejesus out of a gang that's mugging the grocery store. Just the regular, everyday, immigrant existence, Bollywood-style.   

The Innsbruck interlude hits you like being slapped with a wet fish because until then, Tiger Zinda Hai is credible enough. Khan enters the story, and immediately lowers the film's standards while raising the bar for idiocy. His intro involves being chased by a pack of wolves in a situation that seems vaguely inspired by Twilight, with Khan playing a cut-price, overweight Edward Cullen. He manages to get rid of all but two of them (thoroughly unconvincingly, one might add) and the inevitable one-on-one tussle with a wolf follows. Guess how Tiger snatches his victory from lupine jaws? By clutching said wolf to his moobs and sternly hissing, "Stay."

Later on, Tiger comes up with a grand plan that involves him and his team pretending to be injured in order to gain entry into the hospital where the nurses are being held hostage. Stellar idea, except Tiger and his mates stride up, all swag and slow-mo, without a hint of injury. It's a wonder they get past any of the guards.   

In one of the film's many climaxes, Tiger is left to die in a room full of toxic gas (which has come out of cylinders that are helpfully labelled "Highly Toxic Chemical Gas" just so that, you know, we don't think it's oxygen. Or helium). Some time later, a group of baddies wearing gas masks enter to recover his body, but Tiger has obviously beaten the gas. How, you ask? By whipping off his t-shirt and wrapping it around the lower part of his face. How he unshackled himself, why the gas doesn't affect the exposed body parts, how long did it take the CGI guys to create Khan's torso muscles are all irrelevant details. Perhaps the terrorists were using gas masks because they got them on sale.    

Though as far as discarded explanations go, Zafar saves the best for last. SPOILER ALERT Tiger doesn't die in Tiger Zinda Hai (I know. Who'd have thunk?), but no one can spoil precisely how he (and Kaif's Zoya) managed to make their final escape because writers Neelesh Misra and Zafar didn't work that detail out or they couldn't be bothered to include it in the final edit. It's as though they said to one another, "This comes 159 minutes into the movie. Who cares? Just cut to the end credits." 

Take Khan and the bombast that surrounds the Bollywood hero out of Tiger Zinda Hai, and you actually have a competent, entertaining film. The money lavished on production design is well-spent and none of the locations in the film look jarring or unrealistic. The action is well-choreographed and the stunts have the sophistication of Hollywood action spectacles. The dialogues are banal and often, characters burble lengthy, confessional paragraphs like they're taking part in an elocution contest, but you forgive this because the film moves briskly and it isn't boring. It's also refreshingly progressive on some fronts. At a time when our Prime Minister waves Pakistan around as a bogeyman threatening the Hindu rashtra, here's a film that sticks to the old mantra of emphasising similarities between Indians and Pakistanis, according valour and patriotism to people from both sides of the border. It also puts forward the suggestion that the two warring countries can join hands to beat terrorism, which is almost heroic as a sentiment in an age when even India-Pakistan cricket matches are deemed too dangerous to organise. Plus, Kaif's Zoya is a working mother and it's good to see Zafar's heroine has evolved and matured since Sultan, in which Anushka's Aafra got rather short-changed by the plot. While Kaif doesn't have any discernible expression on her rather plastic face, she's excellent in the action sequences. Watching Zoya, who not only does what Tiger's mission requires of her but also frees a batch of sex slaves because women can multitask and how, I longed for a super-spy franchise in which the spotlight stays on the heroine, instead of dragging her away from the action because the hero needs to save her and the day.   

For a Bhai bhakt, Tiger Zinda Hai may be vaguely dissatisfying. The script gives Khan his oomphy moments, but Khan is not the heart of this film. He comes in late, exits early, doesn't get to kill the bad guy and the moments of triumph are peopled by the supporting cast rather than Khan. Sure he gets the slow-mo sequences — the one in which the camera ends up focusing on his crotch to show Tiger shooting a massive gun that's spitting out bullets, would warm the cockles of Sigmund Freud's heart — but they're all bang with no buck. For all the shooting, punching and planning that Tiger does, other people save the day again and again. 

With a supporting cast that ably holds the film together, what Tiger Zinda Hai suggests is that Bollywood isn't powered by its stars, but held back by them. Khan may be the film's biggest draw, but he's also the biggest flaw. Each time the script has to accommodate Khan and his characteristic machismo, the story and storytelling take a lethal hit. Without him, Paresh Rawal as the slimy Firdaus, Delafrooz as the ruthless Abu Osman, Anupriya Goenka as the gutsy nurse Poorna and even bitty players like Kumud Mishra, Paresh Pahuja and Angad Bedi do just fine. In the non-Bhai bits, Tiger Zinda Hai offers glimpses of how Bollywood would make big-budget films if it privileged story over star, and it's promising. Unfortunately, with most of the industry convinced that audiences are herds who follow their favourite stars slavishly, our big-budget stories are doomed to being yanked back to banality and formulaic mediocrity by A-listers who are evidently resistant to both retirement and change.