Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Ek Tha Tiger (India, 2012)

As the man who literally wrote the book on 1970s Indian action movies, it was enlightening for me to see a more recent example of the Bollywood spy films that the Hindi film industry is so fond of revisiting. And while 2012’s Ek Tha Tiger testifies to an industry miles ahead in terms of slickness, technical prowess and production value of the one that made films like Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 and Gunmaster G9, it also demonstrates that Bollywood is no less, if not more, influenced by Hollywood in its approach to tackling commercial genres.

For instance, within the first ten minutes of Ek Tha Tiger, I pegged it as being an Indian take on a very specific type of Hollywood action film--by which I mean a vehicle for a bankable, preternaturally fit star with an unlikable public persona who does penitence by sacrificing his gym-toned body on the torture wheel of post-millennial action spectacle. In this case, that star is accused domestic abuser and animal murderer Salman Kahn, who, in the film’s opening scene, is involved in a harrowing foot chase along the alleyways and across the rooftops of an Iraqi city (which I imagine was described in the script as “just like the one at the beginning of Casino Royale.”) Of course, Khan’s alleged crimes are more serious than those of Tom Cruise, who was made to hang from the roof of Singapore’s tallest building for sullying Oprah Winfrey’s couch, which kind of makes us Americans look like quite an unforgiving lot.

But that doesn’t really matter, because, almost as soon as that opening scene ends, Ek Tha Tiger shuffles genres like a well curated mixtape and plants us down in the middle of a pretty by-the-numbers Bollywood romcom. This happens when Khan, playing the dutiful Indian secret agent known as Tiger, meets Zoya (newcomer Katrina Kaif), the comely housekeeper of the professor whom he has been charged with protecting from Pakistani assassins. While Tiger is immediately, if reluctantly, smitten, Zoya, haughty and Western educated (this part of the film takes place at Ireland’s Trinity College) is resistant to his charms. So, yes, the type of by-the-numbers Bollywood romcom I’m talking about is that one where (sigh) a red blooded Indian boy is tasked with breaking the spirit of a willful girl via a nagging ritual that seems a lot more like stalking than courtship.

This conflict between love and duty, along with the academic setting, gives Ek Tha Tiger a superficial similarity to Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Naa, though to compare the two doesn’t flatter it. Khan and Kaif simply lack the chemistry and charm of Main Hoon Naa’s stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Sushmita Sen, while Salman Khan is too self-absorbed to attempt the type of self-parody that SRK proves so expert at in Main Hoon Naa Furthermore, Main Hoon Naa, as directed by Farah Khan, both a choreographer and a director, is a film that pulsates joyously with its music, while Ek Tha Tiger’s score is meager (I don’t think I counted more than four songs) and the dancing prosaically staged.

Eventually Zoya is revealed to be a rogue agent of the Pakistani secret service and she and Tiger, now pursued by the intelligence agencies of both of their countries, must go on the run. This leads into an episode marked by a series of the kind of beautifully shot location sequences that beg the question, "How can two such pretty people in such pretty places not fall totally in love?" And the answer is that they totally do.

Zoya is finally captured and taken hostage, at which point Tiger and his colleagues must enact a daring rescue. It is at this point that Ek Tha Tiger awakens from its reverie as if having received a well-intentioned slap to the face and becomes the stunt-filled, explosion laden killfest that we all (well, some of us) have been hoping it would become all along. During this section we get to see Zoya repeatedly demonstrate the She-Hulk like ability to drop from thirty feet and land on her feet without shattering her knees. We also get to see Salman Khan punched in the face in slow motion, which is pretty gratifying.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Ek Tha Tiger, but I think that, given it was an international box office smash, it can stand to take a few well-intentioned knocks to the chin. It is, in all honesty, not a hard film to watch. It’s an expertly made commercial entertainment that gives its audience everything they could ask for, though in a perhaps less manic and well apportioned manner than the Masala films of old. And there lies the greatest difference between it and the Indian spy films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s: rather than stirring its disparate genre elements into a rough stew, it puts them in a kind of narrative Cuisinart, providing its audience with a ride that is less bumpy and dizzying than its predecessors. If you see this as some kind of loss (as I do), I prescribe that you chase this film down with a viewing of James Bond 777.

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