Tiger (Salman Khan) can do almost everything. He can intimidate and overpower wolves. He can shoot bullets, fire bazookas, ride a horse, drive a hummer, run fast, evade danger. But his resume lacks one quality: He doesn’t know how to defuse a bomb. In Tiger Zinda Hai’s climax, an Indian nurse, Poorna (Anupriya Goenka), needs help, but Tiger, for a change, can’t be the hero. Poorna, one among the 25 Indian nurses held captive by ISC (a militant group modeled on ISIS), has a bomb strapped to her. Tiger turns to Namit (Angad Bedi), his team member, an expert in defusing bomb, who says, “This is not possible, sir.”
Like most men, Tiger doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s livid, scolding Namit to try harder. Namit does his best; he still says it’s impossible. Tiger, looking more ominous than the bomb, the very embodiment of ‘Impossible says I’m possible’, finally tells Namit, “Dekh in nurses ko! [look at these nurses]”, as if their distressed faces have codes of deactivating the bomb. Namit looks at them. Then Tiger says, “Ho jaana chahiye [should be fine]” to another team member and leaves. Tiger, as always, was right. Namit somehow finds a way to kill the bomb. Tiger’s resume has a new skill: motivational speaker.
This scene perfectly encapsulates Tiger Zinda Hai, which makes you laugh at the wrong time for the wrong reason. Khan is known for starring in action dramas where he vanquishes his enemies alone. But here the scale is ginormous: Khan’s Tiger is up against an ISIS-like group, feared by the armies and intelligence services of the world. But with some help from half-a-dozen cohorts, Tiger annihilates them. Earth is done. You wonder what’s next: aliens?
Tiger Zinda Hai’s prequel, the 2012 actioner Ek Tha Tiger, was a middling fare made notable because it showed Khan’s willingness to play a character. Since then he has appeared in a few films that have tested his acting capabilities, such as Bajrangi Bhaijan, Sultan, Tubelight, and, irrespective of their end results, at least tried telling a story. Zafar’s last film, Sultan, an uneven drama with flashes of promise, seemed to interrogate the star’s persona. So Tiger Zinda Hai had a shred of promise. But here, Zafar is caught between the essence of Khan’s stardom – a macho figure landing fists, raining bullets – and a real-life story that resists that simplification. Zafar tries. There’s some attempt at understanding the setting. We’re shown the terror in its terrains before the hero is introduced. Tiger and Zoya (Katrina Kaif), his wife, an ex-ISI agent helping him in the mission, have to earn their victories: they strategise, implement their plans, face hurdles. The film’s villain, Abu Usman (Sajjad Delfrooz), ISC’s leader, is given a backstory detailing his motivations.
But these choices can only make Tiger Zinda Hai a good film. The problem is that it wants to be a good Salman Khan film. Zafar wants to inject drama in an already dramatic story. So the film first has a dash – and later, a splash – of jingoism. Tiger tells his son, Junior, to speak in Hindi when they’re together. It’s a crucial line because Junior’s mother is Pakistani. “When you’re with me, you’re Indian,” says Tiger. In a subsequent scene, he’s putting Junior to sleep by reading a story of Bhagat Singh, ending with “Inquilab Zindabad”. That is soon followed by Zoya telling Tiger, “You love your country more than me. That’s what I respect about you.” Later, we find out that Tiger’s team member, Azaan (Paresh Ahuja), is secretly carrying a tricolor, wanting to unfurl at the hospital after rescuing the hostages. These scenes play out like inconsequential asides, planted to garner whistles and applaud.
Many Hindi films, especially those centred on Indian civilians in danger, take the easy route of jingoism to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience, often at the cost of deriding a different country. (Pakistan is a frequent target.) Tiger Zinda Hai is smart to refrain from suggesting that India (or its security agency) is better than Pakistan, but its core beliefs – that “there’s only one religion: humanity” and that the two countries should be on friendly terms – are repeated throughout the film without context, materialising through simplistic and sentimental gaze.
Zafar continues holding the audiences, explaining simple plot details. Midway through the film, a kid is tied to a time bomb, which is about to detonate in seconds. Yet, a character tells Tiger (or perhaps the audiences) that, “This bomb will explode in 45 seconds.” Thank you. When Abu captures Tiger and Zoya, saying he’ll kill them with a noxious gas, the scene next cuts to a few cylinders that read, “Highly Toxic Chemical Gas”. Again, very helpful. In another vital scene, the characters discuss that they’ve only two days left to save the hostages before the CIA strikes. But this has to be drilled in our minds, so the text over the next scene reads, “Two days to airstrike”. These examples aren’t outliers. Tiger Zinda Hai, in many instances, unfolds less like a film, more like an instruction manual.
Then there’s Tiger, the centrepiece in different settings. He’s a thinker but also a bare-chested bullet machine. He’s sensitive but also badass. Zafar doesn’t want to portray Tiger; he wants to showcase Khan. Many Bollywood directors have pursued this tired ambition before, but Zafar’s desires find home through baffling means: glaring plot holes. Big-budget mainstream entertainers don’t usually rely on smart writing, but the two key plot turns in Tiger Zinda Hai, in place to magnify Khan’s stardom, make no sense at all. One of the two in fact, completely changes the climax, contradicting the film’s internal consistency. This isn’t just lazy writing but a dishonest approach to filmmaking, which chooses a star over storytelling.
Not that the star is any better. About to turn 52 in five days, Khan must find new ways to battle time. His only significant quality – his screen presence – is fast deserting him. It’s most evident in this melodramatic action thriller, his staple diet for years, where he fails to hold your attention, serving stock expressions and mannerisms. Till last year, his fans didn’t care; in fact, they did not want him to act. But now he’s stopped performing too, and they’ve started getting restless. Earlier this year, they snubbed Tubelight, and their reactions this morning, in an Andheri multiplex, were considerably subdued. This year has been a particularly unfortunate year for Hindi cinema, and Tiger Zinda Hai fittingly concludes it. But the Hindi film audiences, largely indifferent to the flaws of their stars, have begun pushing back. Besides Tubelight, they also dismissed Jab Harry Met Sejal. The next few days will give them another chance: to prick the mediocrity of a Bollywood star, to deflate his ego, to shake his throne.