Friday 5 January 2018

Still burning: "Tiger Zinda Hai"

After a year of prominent commercial failures - twelve months in which it found itself comprehensively eclipsed by the efforts of regional film industries (Baahubali 2: The Conclusion), and which culminated in a defeat, for the time being, over the controversial Padmavati - Bollywood rallies. Retreats, arguably: its brightest late-year idea, and its biggest festive hit, is after all a sequel, clinging to the masala movie idea of seeking to offer all things to all people over a busy two-and-a-half hours. Tiger Zinda Hai brings Salman Khan's musclebound intelligence officer Tiger - introduced back in 2012's Ek Tha Tiger - out of retirement, or more specifically invites him back in from the cold. We first find the big guy up a mountain in the Tyrol - a location that yields one oddly pleasing image, of a snow-covered ski lodge blasting out vintage Hindi chartbusters - where our hero has settled into blissful domesticity with fellow survivor Zoya (Katrina Kaif). As spies working either side of the Indo-Pakistan border, these two spent the first movie warily circling one another before pairing off and vanishing beyond the state's reach; this time out, they will be fighting back-to-back, a stance adopted with great urgency once news reaches them that a party of Indian nurses have been taken hostage in Iraq by IS-like fundamentalists.

Back in 2012, Tiger might have appeared as a one-man rapid response to the success of the Bourne franchise, brawnily engaging with post-millennial realpolitik: the sequence here in which Salman (or, more likely, his stunt double) spiders vertically up the side of an Iraqi housing block before entering into pummelling fisticuffs with a black-clad assailant delivers almost exactly on that promise. For much of its duration, however, Tiger Zinda Hai plays more like an 80s throwback in the vein of White House Down or the average Andy McNab bestseller: absurd on some level, ridiculous on many more, yet surprisingly hard to disengage from once you've sat down with it. This is a script composed almost exclusively of cliches, but the writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar knows which order to put them in so as to hook us, and generates such a thunderous pace that we're yanked swiftly past those rare tropes that don't play; it's above all else a film of manoeuvres, of decoys and dummy runs that interlock logically to generate the desired outcome. The final half-hour, which plays out in more or less real time as Tiger and Zoya combine to see off their more entrenched foes and liberate the nurses before a planned US air strike, takes in its fair share of red-numbered clocks counting down, and is genuinely tense when it needs to be.

A big part of the film's success can be ascribed to its leading man. Where last summer's big flop Tubelight handed Khan an all but unactable, oddbod character who dragged him several leagues beyond his stoic comfort zone, the role of Tiger frees his biceps from ill-fitting tanktops - one astounding scene of shirtlessness looks computer-generated, but probably isn't - and returns the star to his default position of indomitable hero, a last defence against barbarism. You can see why audiences might start to feel safe around the star again - and, in fairness, he has become a far more assured screen presence than he was even as recently as 2011's Bodyguard: one upside of spending all that time in front of the gym mirror is that he's clearly spotted those areas that needed improvement. As this performer's career-rebooting 2015 megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan demonstrated, Khan now knows how to make the cinema work for him, and he's learning how to make it work for his audience, too. The Tiger-Zoya partnership permits Zafar to enter a special plea for greater cooperation between India and Pakistan, an editorial line that leads towards one cheesily stirring image - our warriors flying both flags side-by-side on a jeep - but also generates welcome moments of levity: the more we work together, one supporting spook notes, the greater the likelihood of our winning every cricket World Cup. (Theory: all Indian cinema is to some degree a commentary on the nation's fluctuating fortunes with bat and ball.)

Elsewhere, Zafar evidently has another kind of equality in mind. Yes, Tiger gets his name in the title again, and yes, he's sent on the type of mission men have traditionally got to do in the movies. Yet it's soon clear that the kidnapped nurses have been characterised with unexpected spark and fight in them - the terrorists, for one, don't see it coming - and the action steps up another level entirely when Zoya, too, shows up in Iraq for reasons best revealed by the film. The enviably locked Kaif's appearance in the middle of a warzone is no more or less preposterous than, say, the 52-year-old Khan's first-reel escape from a pack of wolves via snowboard - and in the scene where Zoya singlehandedly clears a council chamber of gun-toting ne'er-do-wells, the actress starts to make Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman seem a bit of a wuss. (Here's a film to encourage us all back into the gym this January.) Nothing about Tiger Zinda Hai shakes my suspicion Hindi cinema needs many more modernisers and risktakers in the mould of Anurag Kashyap (whose The Brawler opens here next week) if it is to rebalance its accounts: it's a consolidation rather than a renewal, one that doesn't reinvent the wheel so much as give it another, forceful kick. Care has, however, been taken to ensure its nuts and bolts have been oiled along with its star's torso, and that the pieces fit together so that everything moves as it should. If it is a retreat, it's a tactical one, at least, made by people reassuringly confident in their actions.

Tiger Zinda Hai is still playing in selected cinemas.

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