If you found it difficult to believe Saif Ali Khan, in Cocktail, as a software engineer, wait till you see Salman Khan in Ek Tha Tiger. He’s a RAW agent who slings a satchel across his pumped-up torso, trying to pass for a writer. The closest he’s come to literature is probably while lifting a copy of War and Peace every morning, a hundred reps per hand, but even to maintain appearances we don’t see him bent over a laptop or lost in faraway thought. He calls himself a writer. So he’s one. Kabir Khan’s new film is that kind of movie, where nothing and no one are to be taken seriously – though the director does his darnedest to make us think there’s something really at stake: the nation’s safety, for instance, and the safety of the men and women who dedicate themselves to this noble cause. We are asked to endure chatter about RAW and ISI, about India and Pakistan and anti-missile technology, about hard-nosed duty coming in the way of an emotionally nurturing personal life – and at least for a while, we are left with the impression that this is going to be more than just a big, dumb star vehicle.
Ek Tha Tiger has a doozy of a concept. What if James Bond fell in love and no longer wanted to be James Bond? What if, for the first time in his life, he heeded not his instincts and reflexes but the stirrings of his heart? What if he lost sight of his mission (in this case, tracking a suspicious academic played by Roshan Seth), lost interest in it, and yearned for a life of utter ordinariness? Can double-o-seven scale himself back to a mere o? Can a hero, in other words, become a zero? This is the opposite of commercial action-oriented storytelling, where we usually settle down for the stories of people who strive to be something, in those “birth of” movies. This is a “death of” movie – though the thing that dies first is this concept. We realise the end is near when we get a stretch that centers on the hero’s full bladder. (It ends with his relief behind bushes.) And we know it’s business as usual.
The problem isn’t the series of silly contrivances. When Tiger (Salman Khan) and Zoya (Katrina Kaif) flee to another country and they’re caught, there, on camera, their first impulse isn’t to run away to someplace safe but to sit down in front of a piece of street entertainment in full public view. And unlike other shadowy people on the run, they keep their money in a bank. These details aren’t important – and perhaps Tiger and Zoya really meant to erase their pasts and settle down in this new country. (Mercifully, we’re spared the scene where they stand in line for a PAN card.) After all, they’re in love, madly so – and we know this because Zoya tells us, “Jis mohabbat mein deewangi na ho, woh mohabbat hai nahin.” (Of course, the way Kaif delivers this impassioned line she could be in school rattling off a multiplication table.) And if this love story had been narrated convincingly, we wouldn’t be complaining about anything else.
This is meant to be a love so monumental that Tiger, who opens the film by shooting down about a dozen men on his tail, makes a conscious effort, by the end, to not kill anyone. Love has transformed him. It has tamed this tiger. But who’d come to watch a Salman Khan movie where he ends up defanged, and getting a lot of an entirely different kind of action? To treat Ek Tha Tiger as an adult movie, we needed more scenes like the one where Tiger, having been betrayed, pours his rage into strangling an enemy. But that emotion is extinguished like one of the numerous cigarette stubs in the den of a villain – their appearance prompts the hero to impart an anti-smoking message, apparently to his young fans. The film seems to be made for the young-at-heart – there’s no heat in the romance, no sex, and there’s no bloodlust in the action. It’s cartoon love, cartoon violence. It’s safe. You can take the kids along. Even the title resembles one of those ek tha raja stories you’d tell the young ones. The film should have been called Ek Tha Tigger.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.