After watching recent Salman Khan starrers – completely idiotic movies combining dreadful writing, infantile humor, and hammy acting, most of it courtesy Mr. Khan ("Ready", "Dabangg") – I decided to steer clear of Salman Khan films, unless the word of mouth was overpoweringly good. However, do note that "Ready" and especially "Dabangg" were huge hits, so the paying public is not necessarily complaining about the quality of Salman Khan films. Rather, they flock to see middle-aged but well-muscled Mr. Khan as an ageing Romeo romancing nubile Juliets young enough to be his daughters. Mr. Khan, affectionately known as Bhai or brother in the Bombay film industry, is famous for his idiosyncrasies, his volatile temper, his feuds, and in the past few years, for his philanthropy through his NGO "Being Human". Underworld dons are also called Bhai, so one is not certain if it is filial affection or pure fear that earned him this nickname.
But due to the promising press for "Ek Tha Tiger", I checked out Mr. Khan's latest release. Like Jason Bourne in the deservedly successful Bourne franchise, Mr. Khan portrays a covert agent of India's Research and Analysis Wing. This would be equal to the US CIA or UK's MI5 (or is it MI6? – I can't keep my spy agencies straight), and like the globe trotting Mr. Bourne, Mr. Khan's Tiger criss-crosses the planet battling nefarious Pakistani agents from their secret service, ISI.
Kabir Khan, the writer-director of this film, constructs an entertaining popcorn flick utilizing Mr. Khan's strengths: his macho persona, his eccentricity, and his muscled torso. He also concedes Mr. Khan, nudging fifty, should no longer portray lovelorn teenagers. Instead, he plays a lovelorn middle-aged man, and does what Jason Bourne wouldn't be caught dead doing: he sings, he dances, he brandishes enormous bouquets and prettily wrapped presents. And he has a lot of fun doing it; Jason Bourne might find these activities effective stress diffusers, and would do well to unclench and enroll as "John Smith" in a salsa dancing class or take up pottery or French cooking. He'll live longer this way, and we'll be assured of many more installments in the Bourne saga. But I digress
This tale's spectacularly filmed opening has Mr. Khan, er, Bhai, tracking down and kicking the stuffing out of a rogue RAW agent in Iraq. Then his commanding officer (a magisterial Girish Karnad) dispatches him to observe an oddball professor Dr. Kidwai (Roshan Seth) at Dublin's famed Trinity College, suspected of sharing his expertise in a nuclear missile deflection system with the Pakistanis. When Tiger meets the charmingly fey professor under the pretext of collecting material for a book on India's finest minds, the don balks at the amount of shadowing Tiger is going to subject him to. His query is justified: Do you want to write a book on me, or do you wish to marry me?
Kabir Khan peppers his screenplay with dry wit, takes us to far-flung places with genuine payoffs, and gets the proportion of the ingredients just right.
Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Tiger falls for one Zoya (Katrina Kaif), cleaning woman for the loopy Dr. Kidwai and his pug, in between choreographing dance routines that are straight lifts from River Dance. An avid multi-tasker, she also embarks on a romance with the fumbling Tiger, new to wooing instead of wounding. His secret agent buddy Gopi (an excellent Ranvir Sheorey) looks on in bafflement as the fearsome Tiger morphs into a bashful suitor.
Then, as must always happen in such tales, Tiger and Zoya find themselves on the lam in picturesque Havana. Unlike other people in deep cover, they sing, they dance, they get caught on camera (that's Jason Bourne rolling his eyes, muttering "Amateurs"), which results in the combined spy forces of India and Pakistan giving pursuit.
It's thrilling, it's engaging, it features white-knuckle chases and stunts, some by Ms. Kaif, who plays the conflicted Zoya. I always anticipate Ms. Kaif's artistic evolution with bated breath. She has demolished more movies with her bad acting than Mr. Khan ever did with his fists. Finally, in last year's "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" (You Only Live Once), she played a character with some measure of conviction, the sporty, mixed-race Laila. Her Zoya here is an extension of that Laila persona: once again, she is of mixed parentage, and again, she gets to use her athleticism.
Through diligent study, Ms. Kaif has pared her acting approach down to a single facial expression. We, the audience, are meant to decode the emotions in that expression in different situations – Ms. Kaif does not encourage lazily sitting back and letting her do all the hard work. The onus is on us: we are meant to look at that pretty, unchanging visage and deduce, aha, now she feels despair; now resignation, and yes, this has to signify either sultriness or acute constipation, and this, immense yearning. I liked that she kept me on my toes throughout her scenes, figuring out just what she was communicating through that one versatile all-purpose expression. Ms. Kaif can no longer be accused of being wooden; I salute her intelligence in pioneering a unique acting style offering discerning audiences a collaborative experience.
The film ends with one astonishing stunt, and we can only hope this means Tiger lives to roar another day. Amid the noise and fury of his rambunctious high-octane actioner, Kabir Khan makes one important point: it is truly obscene that India and Pakistan, countries with staggering amounts of poverty, illiteracy, starvation, and poor health care, earmark disproportionately large percentages of their national budgets for defense spending. Both nations would be infinitely better off, if like Tiger and Zoya, they opt to make love, not war. Human nature being what it is, such hopes would meet with Girish Karnad's cynical parting shot in the film: "Good Luck".
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