The Brits have James Bond, the world’s most recognizable spy and a symbol of class and imperialism. In the US, Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt has emerged as the spy representing Americans through his ingenuity and willingness to do stupid stunts. Well, step aside, you old fuddy duddies! There’s a new secret agent in town! India has… Tiger.
Ek Tha Tiger (translated to Once There Was a Tiger) follows an agent (Salman Khan) who works for an Indian espionage organization known as RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). The opening monologue reveals their counterparts as the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) from Pakistan. The two groups hailing from two of the world’s nuclear powers wage a sort of south Asian Cold War, with agents trying to secure superior intelligence for their side.
The movie opens with Tiger involved in an operation in the Middle East. There’s a lot of eye candy here. The cinematography is lush, and the costuming on Khan is rugged and manly. The scarf especially, which looks a lot like one that my wife bought me when she was in the Middle East. What can I say: dude knows how to dress. We get some parkour, some shaky cam, and a bunch of slow mo where Tiger is firing his gun. It’s setting up to look like India’s answer to the Bourne movies.
Then he comes home an all his housewife neighbors are fanning themselves at the sight of him. Like, just hanging outside in their front lawns and everything. You almost expect a musical number to break out. (It doesn’t here, but they do come later. One of them involves background dancers in Irish hats… because they’re in Dublin. Another one involves Pinocchio. For reals. And it’s pretty clearly Disney’s Pinocchio. I’m starting to notice that a lot of these Yash Raj Films have pretty overt Disney references in them, and I’m left wondering what ownership stake Disney has in the company.) For the first half, this movie’s tone swings wildly from gritty thriller to embarrassing comedy.
It’s not just the shift between wacky domestic life and serious spy missions, either. Western movies, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, do that all the time. (And for that matter, other Yash Raj Films like the Dhoom series.) What’s really odd are there a times Tiger wonders about whether he should reveal his secret life, and we get flashbacks to his missions. Only they’re not the gritty Bourne stuff. Some of his missions involve battle a blonde with a machine gun or fighting two lady ninjas flipping through trees and wearing Mortal Kombat cosplay. It’s like Tiger had been tapped to take on Roger Moore missions. The mission in the main movie proves to be far more straightforward.
Tiger is sent to Dublin to keep an eye out on a Professor that RAW suspects has been forwarding state secrets to Pakistan. Which leads to even more hijinks, where Tiger has to wait outside the University but also really needs to pee. He eventually tries to sneak into the Professor’s house. It turns out he doesn’t go home often; instead, he runs into Zoya (Katrina Kaif), the Professor’s caretaker who is also studying at a local dance academy.
Tiger decides to pose as a hard-luck writer and get information from her, even going so far as to rent a room from her right next door. He evades the potential breach of rental rules by swiftly scaling the storm drain pipe when Zoya isn’t looking. As it turns out, though, he starts to fall in love with her. They cook dinners together, go on cute dates, you know, the whole “I’m Into Something Good” segment from The Naked Gun. I swear to God that I am not making this next part up: during a tender scene between the two, the “Forrest Gump Suite” plays unironically in the background. And I thought I’d seen and heard it all in these Indian movies. I have no idea what either character was saying because I was so distracted.
Things get complicated once Pakistani agents catch wind of Tiger and begin tailing him, and that’s when this movie goes back from meet-cute romance to spy drama.
It’s kind of a shame that the romance takes such a central role in the movie because I don’t buy it at all. Tiger is supposed to be a guy that’s been married to his job and has no time for romance, and Zoya is supposed to be the one woman who is supposed to make him consider whether or not he should leave duty to his country behind. The Vesper Lind to his James Bond, as it were. And yet you never feel much of a connection. Part of it is because he’s always playing a character around her, and there’s no moment where he slips and shows her his true self. Or that he even has a true self, and everything about Tiger is presented as a sort of false projection. So while I can see him perhaps falling for Zoya because he needs an out from his rigidly defined identity as a spy, I don’t see him making a connection on an emotional level. (And not to get too Us Weekly on you, but according to IMDB Khan and Kaif had once been a couple, and this was their first movie together since their break-up.)
At the same time, I don’t see what Zoya would see in him, either. She seems pretty suspicious of his cover as a writer from the jump, so she should always be a little wary. She only seems to come around to him when he saves her life. That can work of it’s set up properly, but in this movie I came the conclusion that she should be even more afraid of Tiger and should stay the hell away from him. My opinions, by the way, may be colored a little by disturbing issues Salman Khan has had with women in real life. Some actors can hide their own ugliness through the way they portray their roles. Khan can’t seem to separate his own opinions of women in real life and on the screen.
On the other hand, director Kabir Khan (who also directed New York, a movie about three students in the aftermath of 9/11) is quite deft at handling the twists. There were plenty of plot developments that I didn’t see coming and had me genuinely interested as to how things would play out. The suspicion and paranoia is very real, especially when, perhaps, your own side becomes the enemy. The film seems to figure this out about halfway through, and the cute gag-filled “spy tries to keep up appearances as a happy-go-lucky guy” plot drops in favor of a tense game of cat-and-mouse. With… musical numbers sprinkled in between. This is still a Bollywood movie after all.
Our leads go from Dublin to Istanbul to Cuba and are accompanied with vivid cinematography. It’s a little cliche. Are there scenes in Cuba of classic American cars? Hell man… there’s a classic car parade. There’s also an outdoor boxing match and someone chomping on a cigar. It’s hard to fault it, though. Part of the fun in watching spy movies are the exotic locales and traveling the world from the comfort of your theater chair. Watching the Hagia Sophia looming in the background had my wife and I wondering when we’d have time to take a vacation there.
There’s also the political subtext. Tiger is your typical spy whose personal life is torn apart by his dual identity. (Though… honestly he anguish is mostly spoken. What we see of his every life seems pretty cherry.) It’s all as defense against Pakistan. But why do we hate each other, man? I’ll admit, I did feel slightly nostalgic watching old school Cold War crises of conscience play out on a different border. It might be more poignant, too: from a foreign viewer, the actors playing Indians and Pakistanis all look like they’re from the same country. (Though, full disclosure, all the actors playing Pakistanis were of Indian descent.) They’re not so different, they and I! (The Pakistani censors didn’t feel that way, though. The movie was banned in Pakistan for showing the country in a negative light.)
Hitting theaters on Indian Independence Day, Ek Tha Tiger did huge business. It was the highest grossing movie of the year and is currently the #21 highest grossing Indian movie of all time. It launched a sequel (Tiger Zinda Hai) that similarly did gangbusters last year (currently the #8 highest grossing Indian film of all time).
In the end, Ek Tha Tiger is comfort food. It’s a spy thriller that teases more serious themes, but never fully commits in favor of crowd pleasers. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, per se. We in the West already have plenty Bourne-inspired gritty thrillers. But Ek Tha Tiger ends up feeling lightweight — an enjoyable lark on first viewing but easily forgotten.
Ek Tha Tiger is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
NEXT: I have somehow done this entry for 7 months now, and I haven’t done a single entry about the big guy who was probably the first foreign movie any of us ever saw: Godzilla. This oversight is rectified next week as we look at Shin Godzilla.