It's well established here at Filmi Geek that I am not an action movie fan. I do, however, enjoy seeing the occasional big-banner commercial release. The Salman Khan action flick Ek tha Tiger ("there was a tiger") has been showing in a cinema hall in my area, and when I saw it receiving fairly favorable reactions, I decided to give it a shot. I watched with low expectations and, I'm slightly ashamed to say, with my brain mostly disengaged - and I wasn't disappointed. Indeed, Ek tha Tiger is a simple, sweet, and - dare I say it - entertaining movie. It's not terribly ambitious, and because of that, succeeds at just about everything it sets out to do.
Tiger (Salman Khan) is an experienced RAW agent who has spent a dozen years traveling around the world, mostly tracking down and killing traiterous double-agents. Concerned that Tiger needs a break from that bone-breaking, soul-breaking life, his boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) sends him to Dublin on a peaceful surveillance mission. There, Tiger is supposed to collect intelligence on a professor, an Indian national, suspected of disclosing Indian military secrets to agents of Pakistan's ISI. Tiger doesn't get far with the professor, but he is smitten with Zoya (Katrina Kaif), the young woman who looks after the professor's housekeeping. To the frustration of Tiger's friend and local handler Gopi (Ranvir Shorey), Tiger finds himself falling in love with Zoya, and questioning the anonymous, transient life of international spying. But Zoya, of course, is also not all she appears. And when the two of them follow their hearts and abscond together, it throws into disarray the international intelligence apparatus of two great nations - India and Pakistan - united only in their great enmity.
Enjoying Ek tha Tiger does require overlooking a handful of sins. First, the sin of being an action movie - I know there are people out there who enjoy these for what they are, but I am not one of them. The story simply hasn't been written that I would enjoy more for being told with extended fistfights, gunfights, and car chases than without them. That said, the action sequences in Ek tha Tiger are remarkably satisfying. They go on too long, and are the only times when the movie threatened to bore me, but they have redeeming qualities. The first action sequence is visually gorgeous, shot in the sunbleached rooftops, winding alley stairways, and bustling souks of a Turkish village (though the locale is supposed to be northern Iraq) - the backdrop of this sequence is a dazzling visual adventure. Averting my eyes from the kicking and shooting, I was rewarded with marvelous photography at every turn.
A later action sequence in the film traverses a similarly thrilling landscape, this time in Havana, Cuba. This sequence catapults across rooftops, hurdles over painted ironwork, and whirls down winding apartment-complex stairways. The backdrop of Havana is one that to me, as an American born in the early 1970s, is almost impossibly exotic. I would not have guessed that after more than 200 Indian movies, the location that would give me the greatest frisson of the foreign would be right here in my own hemisphere, barely 1500 miles from my home. And yet, when the action moved to Havana, my jaw dropped. I am not sure I have ever seen a movie shot in Cuba. The entire sequence was delightful, from the city streets to the lush beaches to the Cuban extras and bit players peppering the scenes. (The one notable exception is perhaps the only very badly wrong note struck in the entire movie: Tiger and Zoya are mugged by a black Cuban assailant whose bulging eyes and ooga-booga delivery conjures up unpleasant racial stereotypes.) And the Havana action sequence allows Zoya to flex her muscles a bit, both holding her own in the melee and doing some impressive climbing and jumping. Even though physical strength should never be the only metric of a female character's quality, it's nevertheless a guilty pleasure for some primal part of my brain to see a woman kicking some ass, at least in a movie where ass-kicking is a principal mode of expression for the male lead.
The rest of the action sequences, though, are just action sequences - questionable physics, impossible stunts, innumerable anonymous "bad guys" with terrible aim getting picked off right and left by lucky shots from our mostly unscathed hero. But that is the kind of movie Ek tha Tiger is. I am not sure how people who enjoy action movies watch them - it can't be with too much of a critical eye, because no one on earth has the kind of superhuman endurance to keep up the pace of the fistfight on a barrelling tram or the barroom brawl after crashing through so many plate glass windows. I can't legitimately criticize a movie designed as a sequence of such thrills for relying too heavily on them. You either think this sort of thing is fun to watch, or you don't.
Ek tha Tiger's second sin is the sin of its casting. Neither Salman Khan nor Katrina Kaif turns in a great performance here, but then, the script doesn't demand a whole lot in the way of acting from them. Apart from the age-inappropriate pairing (which is a problem hardly unique to Ek tha Tiger or Salman Khan films genereally), the love story is appealing enough. I admit to having an inexplicable soft spot for Salman Khan, and he somehow works for me as a muscle-bound tough with a gentle heart. I am suitably charmed when Tiger appeals to the spirit of Zoya's deceased father, addressing himself to a twinkling star she has pointed out in the night sky. And in the full blossom of the romance, it doesn't even feel like a terrible stretch that Tiger might soothe his soul in his Cuban retirement by learning to paint, as he does in a sweet sequence during the song "Laapata."
Katrina Kaif, too, is adequate to the task she is handed. Astonishingly, this film marks my first Katrina Kaif experience (discounting the Slice ad, shot in Orchha, where she performs oral sex on a mango.) My expectations, based upon years of reading harsh critiques of everything from her acting to her dancing to her diction, were very low. But - if she can forgive me for damning with faint praise - she just isn't that bad in this movie. Her second-language Hindi (only marginally better than my own) is fully explained by her backstory, and she manages to convey enough sadness on her face as Zoya struggles with her divided loyalties.
I have no doubt that Ek tha Tiger could have been a better, more substantial movie with a female lead who brings a bit more maturity and gravitas, someone with the air of being as experienced and world-weary an agent as Tiger is supposed to be. But one of the reasons that Ek tha Tiger works is that it doesn't try to do too much. It's a very simple story that doesn't ask a lot of its actors - or of its audience. And this, at bottom, is why I enjoyed Ek tha Tiger more than the superficially similar Agent Vinod. That movie had so many disparate elements that the result was confusing, incoherent, and soulless. MacGuffins, secret codes, and confusing double-crosses built false and substanceless intrigue, while obscuring any humanity in the characters - Saif Ali Khan and Kareeena Kapoor's characters cross paths repeatedly but don't really develop a relationship. In Ek tha Tiger, by contrast, the plot is kept simple and free of distractions. In short, Ek tha Tiger doesn't try to do to much, and because of that, reaches reasonably satisfying results.
Finally a word for Ek tha Tiger's clever soundtrack, which careens all over the world just as the action does, fusing international sounds with the staple beats of modern desi blockbusters. The song set in Dublin incorporates an Irish reel; "Laapata," set in Cuba, adds a hot salsa beat; darbuka, Arabic musical modes on bowed strings, and some Arabic lyrics color the superb "Mashallah," the song set in the Iraqi souk (and sadly relegated to the closing credits). I adore this kind of musical syncretism, and it highlights what can be added to even a simple movie by putting just a little bit of thought into how the songs mesh with what's happening on the screen.