At the risk of being hunted by diehard Salman Khan fans, I will admit that I'm usually skeptical of his films. It's mostly due to his questionable acting abilities and a filmic sensibility that usually leans more towards the lowbrow and outlandish. But the man has charm and superstar confidence. Truckloads of it. He can whip it out and bombard you with it when he cares about a film enough. Kabir Khan's latest Ek Tha Tiger is, thank goodness, a prime example of this. After Dabangg, this is Salman Khan's best film yet. And for co-star Katrina Kaif, it's refreshing to see she can kick some ass too.
Mounted as a big budget romantic action thriller, Ek Tha Tiger delivers a fine balance of larger than life entertainment with restrained emotion and drama. Those elements are very difficult to have in the same film, especially in mainstream Hindi fare. But director Kabir Khan handles his spy thriller with rare control for a film produced by the veterans of romantic melodrama, Yash Raj Films.
Khan plays Tiger, a rugged, ferocious, and dedicated RAW agent. So dedicated, in fact, that he hasn't taken a day off in 12 years. Nor has he ever had the time to fall in love. You know where this is going, but there are curveballs thrown in there, I assure you.
The first ten minutes of the film are constructed entirely around the grand superhero entrance of this man, complete with jaw-breaking kicks, slow motion rain of cigarette ash, and fast-paced bone-crunching gymnastics through a busy marketplace as Tiger bashes up baddies coming from all directions. If someone were to collect the best superstar entrances in films, it would be safe to bet that Khan will fill up many of the top spots.
Always thirsting for the next dangerous mission, Tiger is sent to Dublin to closely observe an Indian scientist and professor who is suspected of going rogue by sharing information with Pakistan's ISI. In Dublin, Tiger meets Zoya, the professor's house-sitter. Her smile makes the tough Tiger melt. The chemistry between Khan and Kaif is actually quite cute, and their comfort with one another is instantly palpable.
Structurally, the film seesaws between tender romantic scene and destructive action sequence. It's a bizarre balance, especially since the action sequences are over-the-top but brilliantly choreographed by Markos Rounthwaite and Conrad E Palmisano. The romantic drama, in stark contrast, is kept grounded without any unnecessary sobbing, screaming, or deafening background score telling you to feel emotional.
Without giving away the plot twists, it is safe to say that Ek Tha Tiger gets the style and fun of an spy movie right. The characters go on an international jaunt from Delhi to Dublin to Istanbul to Havana. Surprisingly, the plot actually holds up most of the way. There are, of course, holes in the story and some convenient elements thrown in. But then you see Khan accomplish superhuman feats of action with such gusto that you are forced to forget the problems. When the man actually stops a speeding tram with a jacket and his sheer strength, what else would you want from a film about a spy called Tiger?
The intelligence angle in the plot is too heavily emphasized, however. RAW and ISI agents don't usually openly mention their agency names or so clearly state their affiliation as they do in this film. There's a certain grace and protocol involved in how intelligence agents go about their business. Even James Bond rarely mentions who he works for. Here, Tiger and his trusted partner Gopi (Ranvir Shorey) hardly ever flinch before throwing the name 'RAW' out in the open.
As the female lead, Kaif's role isn't too complicated, but she gives it all she can. She can deliver a chilling stare when she wants to, but beyond that her histrionics are what you'd expect.
The best thing about the character of Zoya, however, is that she too throws punches and kicks. Just when you expect her to be a damsel in distress (the usual heroine type we've been forced to accept), she matches Tiger's slam dunks. It's incredibly fun to watch them tag team as they beat up a gang of thugs. Kudos to the director for making the heroine just as badass as the hero.
Khan's acting is usually a hit or miss. In most of his recent films, he sleepwalked through his roles, not showing an ounce of concern. This time, he actually cares, and what an astounding difference that makes to the entire film.
It's safe to say most of this change in attitude is actually due to the presence of Kaif. The way he looks at her in their romantic scenes show a side of Khan we rarely see in his films anymore. There's genuine affection in his eyes (whether it's due to their real life relationshop, we can speculate), but it helps the emotional quotient of the film.
Where Khan excels, of course, are the action sequences. They are an absolute delight, and it's abundantly clear Khan enjoys those the most. Hindi cinema may still be lacking in script originality but I have a hunch Khan's back-to-back action blockbusters will propel a boom in creative action choreography.
Ek Tha Tiger isn't a perfect thriller. But it's some good masala fun with heart and brains. Full points to director Kabir Khan for steering clear of the leave-your-brains-at-home approach to filmmaking. This film has the right mix of zing, ass-kicking, romance, substance, and good performances, all enveloped in a pacifist message. Now if only Salman Khan can deliver these kinds of films to cater to his superstar image (instead of a Bodyguard or Ready), I might stop being so skeptical of his new releases. Go watch the Tiger roar!