Director: Maneesh Sharma
Writers: Shridhar Raghavan, Anckur Chaudhry, Aditya Chopra
Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Emraan Hashmi, Kumud Mishra, Simran, Revathi
Duration: 153 minutes
Available in: Theatres
I like that all the three franchises of the YRF’s spy universe are designed to serve their respective superstars. They’re built around the heroes – the storytelling not only platforms but also protects their image. War (2019), for example, is an ode to Hrithik Roshan’s swag and fluidity; the camera slows down around him, savouring the way he strolls and breathes and looks. Every meta plot point and song becomes a reminder of his physical relevance – of sensuality, even – in a largely asexual genre. Pathaan (2023) is an ode to Shah Rukh Khan’s intelligence; the writing savours the way he thinks, plans and absorbs (both pleasure and pain). Every meta moment becomes a reminder of his social and emotional significance in a largely apolitical genre.
And Tiger 3 – like its predecessors Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) – is an ode to the stiff masculinity of the ‘original’ YRF spy. Given how little a Salman Khan hero moves on screen, the filmmaking is forced to be more kinetic. The law of relative motion comes into play. The camera, co-stars, flying objects and overall narrative must move faster to create an illusion that Tiger is moving. His inertia then gets repositioned as style and (as I like to call it) artistic minimalism. So every set piece becomes a reminder of his vintage brawn in a largely automated genre. It’s fun to watch because, as an elite spy, it nearly makes sense that the man’s face refuses to acknowledge the physics or fiction of a moment. When the viewer can’t even tell what he’s feeling, there’s no chance the enemy can.
For instance, early on in Tiger 3, there’s a song that revolves around R&AW agent Avinash “Tiger” Singh Rathore doing family stuff with his wife, ex-ISI agent Zoya Nazar (Katrina Kaif), despite learning that she might be a double-agent in cahoots with a covert militant group. He watches her with a straight face, but in this context, it looks like stoic heartbreak. Later on, once he realizes that she was being blackmailed by a disgraced ex-agent named Aatish Rehman (Emraan Hashmi), Tiger’s numbness suddenly feels like relief. When both Tiger and Zoya are framed by Aatish as traitors to their countries, his blankness comes across as underdog courage. When Tiger steals a briefcase of nuclear codes during a frenetic chase across Istanbul, he may as well be stealing bread from a supermarket; it’s so casual that it’s almost impressive.
When the inevitable cameo arrives, one star’s wit and agility dignifies the other’s Hulk-Smash rigidity. It’s also worth noting that a Salman Khan character needing help is different. Vulnerability isn’t wired into his system. Tiger isn’t the sort of chap who seems to be in danger even when he is (and he doesn’t get pummelled the way Pathaan does), so it’s funny to see him drolly accept his friend’s presence – the ‘rescue’ plays well into their dynamic together. It’ll get old at some point, but we’re not there yet. In that sense, director Maneesh Sharma does a slick job of keeping the film busy. The setup is effective. Like with Jim in Pathaan, the baddie here gets several hero-entry shots, because he represents the hostility of new-age nationalism. In most films, he’d have been deified for wanting a war: Aatish can’t stand the idea of diplomacy and peace between two nations. His entire mission revolves around the destruction of democracy. He has the sort of main-character energy that makes for some neat moments – like ‘remarrying’ Tiger and Zoya by coercing them into a sinister deal with a “Qubool hai”.
However, this default velocity of the film is also its undoing. The problem with Tiger 3 is that – cool Katrina Kaif and compelling antagonist aside – it doesn’t know when to stop moving. In its quest to make Tiger outdo his (franchise) rivals, the film barrels past its muscular identity and tumbles down a familiar valley. One of the remarkable things about the YRF spyverse is that it’s based on soldiers who reject conventional notions of patriotism. There’s not much to separate them from the radicals in terms of ideology: Each of them goes ‘rogue’ and operates outside a structure that lets them down. What makes Kabir, Pathaan, Rubina, Zoya and Tiger stand out is the fact that their sense of duty survives their disillusionment of the system. This cocktail of intent and dissent is their superpower. Take the homoerotic tension between Kabir and his boss Colonel Luthria in War. It quickly becomes a cheeky parable for the relationship between a rebel and his establishment.
Tiger 3 starts off with the right ideas. Tiger and Zoya are again forced back from exile and domestic bliss in Austria. He continues to be sceptical about his new R&AW boss (Revathi). At stake is a rare peace agreement between India and Pakistan. There are misunderstandings between the leaders; yet, an olive branch remains the pressing motive. But the film’s Salman Khan-sized aura means that it’s not enough to protect the world from hatred. In this case, it amounts to something more specific: Saving Pakistan from itself. The big-brother complex is writ large over Tiger’s mission to rescue his “in-laws” – featuring a hapless Prime Minister, a military coup, a vengeful ex-ISI agent, good Pakistanis being tricked by bad Pakistanis, a speech about India’s magnanimity and, of course, a national anthem. Even if the broader message is fine (‘harmony’ as envisioned by the House of YashRaj), the result is patronising. After all, when said a certain way, a slogan like “we will break into your house and kill you (ghar mein ghus ke marenge)” is only one side of the coin; the other can be “we will break into your house and save you (ghar mein ghus ke bachayenge)”. Both phrases can sound equally belittling.
The bottom line is that someone like Tiger doesn’t offer help, he imposes help. The film doesn’t exhibit kindness, it flaunts kindness. Characters don’t sacrifice themselves, they blow themselves up to give terrorists a taste of their own medicine. There’s a thin line between heroism uniting two countries and heroism implying that one is incapable of cleaning its own mess – and Tiger 3 keeps crossing that line. The tone reminds me of some media coverage of the Pakistan cricket team’s exit from the ongoing World Cup – where prickly sports banter often descends into petty teasing. The latter only pretends to be the former. I’d still like to believe that the founding pillars of the franchise are more nuanced. As of now, though, it feels like this tiger is finally showing its stripes. He is moving, but in the same direction as his surroundings.