Ek Tha Tiger: Is a Spy Ever Off Duty?

Mild and understated in its approach, the film shows that swashbuckling spies are just as susceptible to heartbreak
Ek Tha Tiger: Is a Spy Ever Off Duty?
Ek Tha Tiger

There is a seemingly trivial scene somewhere at the beginning of Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012). After the success of another mission, Tiger (Salman Khan) calls his boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) over for his “special daal”. The conversation gradually veers to romantic interests where Shenoy mentions he loved a girl but had to sacrifice his love because of his duty to the nation. Tiger asks him if he regrets his decision. Decades of conditioning with regard to chest-thumping patriotism in Bollywood would make you believe that Shenoy’s answer had to be, “No. My country has given me everything. I will never regret sacrificing anything for it.” But Shenoy’s response is “Har roz, Tiger, har roz.” This was precisely the moment I knew Ek Tha Tiger is very different from the spy films that preceded it. 

The film doesn’t usually form a part of cinema discourse simply because it had been marketed as just another Salman Khan potboiler. While the film was undoubtedly one of my favourites as a child because of how entertaining it was, only upon rewatching it recently did I become cognizant of how nuanced it is in terms of depicting spies as people whose purpose extends beyond national duty. 

Ek Tha Tiger starts off in quintessential Salman style, with the use of slo-mo as he beats the bad guys. His scarf, which has now become iconic after his cameo in Pathaan, is thrown on the people chasing him. At this stage, Tiger is no different from every other spy we have seen. A man who has never taken a day off in the last 12 years (12 years! I struggle to not take a day off once in 12 days.), Tiger is the epitome of a dedicated and patriotic Indian spy. You’d almost expect him to launch into a hyper-nationalistic rant at this point. 

Ek Tha Tiger

But despite his dedication to the country, there is a tinge of weariness in the way Tiger goes about his life. There is a sense of purposelessness about how Tiger dourly looks around at his neighbours, who are enamoured by him, as he waits for his vessel to be filled with milk. It distinctly shows the lack of any layers to Tiger’s personality beyond his job. Some may perceive that as lazy writing, but in my eyes, it was a fairly accurate depiction of the dullness of a man who has never thought of anything else besides his job. One may think Tiger would be happy leaving it behind, but the question arises: did he have anything in his life apart from work?

Amidst the mundanity which gnaws at his mind as he sets off on a mission to Dublin, he meets Zoya (Katrina Kaif). The ‘twist’ that she is an ISI spy can be detected from a mile away, and yet the beauty lies in its predictability. Since we know that Tiger is inevitably going to be betrayed by her, every interaction that they had posed a philosophical question to the audience: Would not falling in love be better than the transient happiness which would probably make him realise there exists a place beyond the world of espionage? Is this realisation worth it, even if it comes at the cost of an inevitable betrayal?

Tiger was a man who approached everything in his life with the enthusiasm of a kid at a business convention. And despite that, we find him doing his best to get a thoughtful gift to express his gratitude to Zoya. He breaks out of character to show Zoya that he isn’t bland. This is the first time you really wonder: Has Tiger finally found purpose beyond duty? It probably isn’t a coincidence that in the very next scene where Tiger and Zoya go out to eat “tangri” kebab, Geeta Dutt’s ‘Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De’ plays softly in the background, almost like a word of caution for Tiger to not forget his duty. 

When the scene of betrayal arrives, one would expect it to be packed with emotions. But yet again, the director takes an understated approach, choosing to show it matter-of-factly and this is what makes it even more heartbreaking.

Ek Tha Tiger

As several foreign delegations, including India and Pakistan, meet in Istanbul, the tension is palpable. Yet we see the weariness in Tiger and Zoya’s eyes. These are agents who are aware of the futility of this one-upmanship between their countries. Both the protagonists realised that amidst their duty in Dublin, they had found brief moments of joy where for the first time, they experienced something that had been missing from their lives so far: the feeling of being loved. Throughout their life, they never questioned their priorities, and yet here they are left wondering if putting their duty over love was truly worth it.

Ek Tha Tiger questions the most basic notion of national duty: Does it always have to come at the cost of everything else in life? The film contests those who have normalised sacrifice at the altar of the country and those who have parted with their loved ones and regretted it. We may view the life of a spy as action-packed and adrenaline-pumped. But Ek Tha Tiger doesn’t shy away from portraying the unfortunate reality of a life brimming with angst. The Salman Khan starrer is one of the rare Hindi-language films that didn’t try to veil that with testosterone and action. 

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