Tiger, tiger, burning bright – an Ek Tha Tiger review

by tybmmjourno

A still from Ek Tha Tiger

I entered to watch this film with little expectation. Bodyguard had been a tiresome fare, with me being unable to sit through all of it. Ek Tha Tiger, much like its titular character and the regal feline, sprung a reasonably pleasant surprise.

Rating: ***

Tiger (Salman Khan) is an efficient, calculative RAW agent with dangerous levels of workaholism and a knack for making excellent ‘daal’. He impresses his boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) and intrigues his neighbours (who can never quite make sense of his long absence and injuries). After recuperating from a physically taxing assignment (which makes for a cinematically captivating opening), Tiger is sent for a comparatively lighter mission to Ireland, where he is to keep a close eye on the activities of a reclusive professor. Prof. Kidwai (Roshan Seth) is suspected of leaking sensitive information to the Pakistani intelligence.

Tiger introduces himself as Manish Chandra, an Indian writer who is keen to write a biography on the Professor. The latter’s consent allows Tiger to observe him from close quarters. However, it is the Professor’s house-help Zoya who invites more than a cursory glance from the superspy.

The mission is relegated to the sidelines as Tiger begins to enjoy his quiet moments with her. Love inevitably follows, though it seems one-sided when Zoya steps away from him after he professes his love for her. Very soon though, Tiger understands why.

Zoya puts up more than a convincing front as a house-help cum dance student than Tiger does as a writer (“You do not have the hands of a writer,” Zoya remarks in a restaurant scene, a slight hint to her abilities beyond mere observation). She is an ISI agent. A very capable one too, as our heart-broken protagonist realises when he catches her swiping important information from Prof. Kidwai’s research onto her hard drive.

Torn between love and duty, Tiger spares her life though the ISI field operative who attempts to attack him at that fateful moment is not so fortunate. The mission ends but the feelings linger. Difficult to ignore, yet impossible to reciprocate. More so, when you are on the opposite sides of a fiercely guarded border.

“There are 201 countries in the world,” says Shenoy through gritted teeth in one scene, “and he had to find a Pakistani girl.”

The two agents struggle to escape their cloistered organisations. What follows are wild chases across grimy locales which explode into a volcanic climax thoroughly befitting the espionage genre.

Ek Tha Tiger is Kabir Khan’s third film after Kabul Express (2006) and New York (2009). Despite directing a spy thriller, he keeps to his trademark realism even if it is embellished by the flamboyance of the Yash Raj banner.

The action scenes are reminiscent of the Bourne franchise, choreographed as they are by Conrad E. Palmisano (a Hollywood man), Markos Rounthwaite (part of the award winning stunt team for the Bourne Ultimatum) and Pervez Feroz (action director for Kurbaan) should take a bow for weaving together an engaging crisscross of high octane action, instead of a dizzying handheld blur.

The lighter scenes are a delight too, with Tiger wooing Zoya, convincing Prof. Kidwai to allow him to “be a constant companion” around him (“Have you come to write a book on me or to marry me?” counters the amused academician). Also look out for the scene where he remains oblivious to the curiosity he arouses in his neighbourhood regarding his profession.

Together, the drama, comedy and action work as a cohesive  story-telling structure. A love of story of two agents on opposing fronts may seem like vaguely familiar territory (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Tourist, a few James Bond films like Goldfinger as well). But it is still a first for Hindi cinema. The writers (Kabir Khan, Neelesh Misra) could have very well made it into a Shakespearean tragedy but instead chose to keep the plot light yet tense – a delicate balance.

Simple too, in the opinion of this reviewer, for the filmmaker has for a good part of the film refrained from using pretentious jargon like “Alpha Q to Mother Hen, we have a 4-7-9 with us.”

The performances were also quite a surprise, with Salman Khan giving a restrained performance after a long time. Double entendres and the tapori appeal have traded place with the suaveness of an intelligence agent. Katrina Kaif does justice to a role that is tailor-made for her, the accent being explained away as a part of her character’s British upbringing. Ranvir Shorey delivers a wonderful performance as Tiger’s RAW contact in Ireland. Watch out for his voiceover in the opening montage of the film describing the constant conflict between RAW and ISI, which effectively set the mood for the film. The snippets could have well belonged to a Hollywood blockbuster or the extended opening to Person of Interest. Girish Karnad, Roshan Seth and everybody else in the cast provide able support.

Ek Tha Tiger is not a stimulating piece of intellectual cinema. It is an unapologetic entertainer. And a very good one at that. The story requires a little suspension of disbelief, but not the complete absence of the all-essential brain. Considering the tripe the industry has been doling out (et tu, Agent Vinod), this film is a welcome change. Do watch on the big screen. Keep the DVD as memento.