This was the major Hindi cinema release for Christmas 2017, one of the most expensive Indian productions and already a global hit. It’s a follow-up to the similarly successful Ek Tha Tiger from 2012. At the end of that film, ‘Tiger’, an Indian ‘super spy’ was assumed ‘missing’ after an incident in Cuba. This sequel sees the agent of RAW (India’s secret service) discovered living a settled family life in the Austrian Tyrol when his services are required to rescue 25 Indian nurses held captive by ISIL-style terrorists in Northern Iraq. What he doesn’t realise at first is that there are also 15 Pakistani nurses in the same predicament and Tiger’s Pakistani wife Zoya, also a ‘super spy’ agent, but for Pakistan’s ISI, is charged with getting them out.
Tiger Zinda Hai displays all the elements we might expect in a contemporary Indian blockbuster. Its narrative is built around its two major stars, Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, re-united from the 2012 film. These two find themselves in a typical masala film in the sense that it combines elements of the family film, the romance, action picture and war combat film. In doing so it borrows from a range of well-known films and star vehicles. Tiger (Salman Khan) and Zoya (Katrina Kaif) are married spies just as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr & Mrs (US 2005) are married assassins hired to kill each other. Tiger and Zoya might indeed find themselves on opposite sides of a case (as they did in the earlier film). But they also have a young son, Junior, like the secret service parents in Spy Kids (US 2001). Once the action starts, Tiger becomes an amalgam of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Superman – while Zoya is more akin to a Michelle Yeoh or Bridget Lin in a Hong Kong action flic. Hindi cinema has always been keen on importing ideas from Hollywood and Hong Kong but I’m sure there are also homegrown Indian models I haven’t seen. I am well aware, however, that Indian cinema has had ‘action women’ since at least the 1940s.
There are several interesting aspects of the narrative. The idea of Indian and Pakistani agents fighting together against terrorists in the current climate is perhaps a fantasy, but still an intriguing prospect. It’s also novel (in the UK) to see a narrative about the continued fighting in Iraq which doesn’t take the American or European perspective. (The Americans are portrayed as not altogether trustworthy in this film.) Ironically, the film was shot mainly in the UAE which has a significant population of Indian migrant workers (a third of the local population?) mainly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The UAE is also a market for Indian films. How many Indian migrant workers are in Iraq is less straightforward to quantify. News reports about stranded migrant workers have been numerous, but mostly in construction rather than the oil industry. The city where the nurses are held is given as ‘Ikrit’ – presumably a fictitious version of Tikrit (the birthplace of Sadam Hussein). The villain in the film is the terrorist leader played by Sajjad Delafrooz, an actor born in Iran but now living in the UAE. He’s very effective I think. I’d like to comment on the actors playing Americans but IMDb’s cast list seems to omit most of them. They seemed OK and certainly better than many of the Anglos in Indian films.
The traditional masala film in the 1970s-90s had six or seven lavish song and dance sequences. Tiger Zinda Hai still has songs but one is used for the closing credits (and is performed in a Greek island setting). Only one other song actually stops the narrative as such – a love song in the Tyrolean setting. I can’t remember much about the other four.
Since this franchise is built around its two stars, it’s necessary to think about how Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif perform. Since I haven’t see them in anything else except the first Tiger film (and in Kaif’s case as a fantasy figure in one episode in Bombay Talkies), I’m dependent on news reports and trailers for other films. Salman Khan is a big star, perhaps only just behind Aamir Khan and Sharukh Khan in the rankings. His persona is very much as the muscle man and in this film he does rip off his shirt at one point to display his physique. My impression is that he has put on more bulk since the first Tiger film. He is also said to be quite a short man (various claims are made but he’s probably about 5′ 6” – the other two major stars are not much taller). This makes Salman Khan almost square but his movements are impressive. I thought he was fine in his role and gave his fans what they want. Katrina Kaif was much more impressive than I expected her to be. Her career was dogged in the beginning by claims that she was ‘inauthentic’. She was born in Hong Kong to an English mother and British Kashmiri father and lived in various countries before settling in London where she was ‘discovered’ by a British-based Indian filmmaker when working as a model. Brought to India she continued modelling and featured in several films but was hindered by her lack of Hindi language skills. Her Tiger performances have helped to establish her properly (especially since both films have made substantial profits). I was most impressed by her athleticism – I believed that her character could perform the action moves. She is tall (certainly taller than Salman Khan) and lithe and she dances well. I will certainly consider watching her future films. As it turned out, I watched the first Tiger film, the day after watching the second. (There is a post on Ek Tha Tiger (2012) here.) I think I actually prefer the first film because it has more romance and fewer explosions. The second film is also 20+ minutes longer under a different director, Ali Abbas Zafar. He also wrote and directed Salman Khan’s 2016 blockbuster, Sultan, a genuine muscle-man flic on the basis of the trailer.
On December 12th Lingaa was released on 4,000 screens worldwide. This release by one of global cinema’s biggest stars was not mentioned by the mainstream press in the UK. The film begins with the legend ‘Super Star . . . Rajni’. And there is no other superstar quite like Rajnikanth (also spelt Rajinikanth), here with a new film on the very day of his 64th birthday. Hospitalised a couple of years ago, Rajni has returned in 2014 with two films. After the ‘motion capture’ film Kochadaiiyaan comes this classic masala film in which Rajni, under layers of make-up and accompanied by a swarm of body doubles, plays two roles as he did in Endhiran, dancing and performing stunts as of old.
Lingaa is interesting for several reasons, not least the marriage of traditional Indian popular film conventions with extensive CGI and some self-reflexive jokes about Rajni himself and this kind of audience-pleasing film. In fact, many of the Indian reviews make the point that the film is as much about Rajni as about the character he plays – at one point the character blows out a candle on his own birthday cake. How many stars are able to co-ordinate birthdate and release date like this?
The narrative involves a contemporary crisis moment for a group of villages near a huge dam in the hills around Madurai in Tamil Nadu (although the film was shot in Karnakata). A devious local politician has a plan to destroy the dam for his own purposes. If I’m not quite clear how this is supposed to work, blame Cineworld’s projection standards since for the first 15 minutes or so the English subtitles weren’t properly on screen and I could only read the occasional line. But just as I was resigning my self to three hours of guesswork, the problem was solved. The elderly village guardian of the temple announces that the only way to defeat the politician’s plans is to find the grandson of the Raja who built the dam during 1939-44 and who locked the temple gates when he was driven out by the British. (The temple was built to protect the dam and at its centre is a lingaam – a phallus) Unfortunately, the grandson has become a sophisticated criminal specialising in heists and he is disinclined to recognise the grandfather who in his opinion condemned the family to poverty.
The grandson is found and persuaded to return to the village and a long flashback details how and why the dam was built. In the final section the grandson saves the day. Both grandfather and grandson are played by Rajni with two different (but visually similar) young female leads playing the modern village girl who is a reality TV presenter (Lakshmi – Anushka Shetty) ensnaring the criminal and the 1939 village girl who helps Lingeswaran to build the dam (Bharathi – Sonakshi Sinha). Rajni reportedly said that dancing with the two much younger women was more difficult than the action scenes, but his unique personality comes across even through the layers of make-up and hair pieces.
If Lingaa is subjected to too much scrutiny it doesn’t hold up. There are numerous ‘mistakes’ in chronology and the casting of the evil young British collector (and the other British roles) doesn’t work at all. But the film is enormous fun and it has great vitality. In the trailer below you’ll spot the musical numbers that play with scenes from Mission Impossible and Pirates of the Caribbean. The modern day criminal has a small group of henchmen/stooges and I was constantly reminded of 1940s Hollywood and the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope ‘Road films’. At one point one of the stooges demands that the action be speeded up as “there is another show coming on soon” (Lingaa runs to over three hours with its Intermission). At another point there is a joke about A.R. Rahman’s music. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is one of Rahman’s best scores but perhaps it will grow on me.
Lingaa has first appeared in Tamil and Telugu versions, the two biggest South Indian language cinemas which together rival Hindi cinema. The Hindi version will appear on December 26. Overall this will be the biggest pan-Indian release of 2014. Rajni also has a large fanbase in South-East Asia as well as the diasporas in Europe and North America. He is also well-loved in Japan. The film has been generally well-received as good value entertainment. But it does also have some interesting political statements. A highlight is the speech that the Raja delivers to the workers from the villages after British attempts to undermine progress. He exhorts them all as Indians, irrespective of caste or creed, to work together for India, a potent message during the Second World War and the rise of the Independence movements. This same message crops up during an attack on a train carrying Lingeswaran during his earlier period as a British Collector (he is a Cambridge-trained engineer and a senior member of the Indian Civil Service). The attack has echoes of Zhang Yimou’s wu xia films – The Curse of the Golden Flower).
Most of all Lingaa is about Rajni and the fans are already turning out in their droves. Early reports are that the film has joined the ‘100 crores club’ after just 3 days worldwide. (That’s around £10 million if my arithmetic is correct.)
Official trailer (Tamil version):
In the last couple of years the UK exhibitor Cineworld has expanded its releases of Tamil films beyond London, showing them in areas like Bradford where the local South Asian languages are more likely to be Urdu, Punjabi or Bangla. Previously I have had to watch major Tamil films in Hindi dubs in local multiplexes but now there are Tamil releases – but usually only showing once nightly and too late for public transport. Biriyani therefore marks a change – a major Tamil release which has matched the screening schedules of Hindi releases, showing several times a day for the first couple of weeks. Since much of my experience of Tamil cinema has been with the acclaimed films of Mani Ratnam/Rajiv Menon or Shankar, I was keen to see something more solidly mainstream.
Biriyani is a major production directed by Venkat Prabhu and starring Karthi. Like blockbuster productions in other industries, the film has been trailed for over a year and then subject to various changes of release date (releases are often timed for religious holidays). Shooting was extended over many weeks in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu as well as in Hyderabad. The film was finally released in December 2013 on over 1,000 screens ‘worldwide’ in both Tamil and Telugu versions.
The two central characters are Sugan (Karthi) and Parasu, two bright graduates in Chennai. One is very successful with women, the other is not. Their actual employment details are unclear but the plot sees them helping to launch a new motor dealership (lots of product placement for Mahindra). This involves Sugan upstaging his on-off girlfriend, a local TV reporter and impressing a local business tycoon with the help of Parasu’s IT skills. Later, the two men, who are fond of a drink, find themselves at a biriyani food outlet on the highway where they meet a femme fatale, Maya. They awake the next morning to find a corpse in their car. How did it get there? What have they done? Why are they being chased by the police?
The film actually starts with a flashback from the point where the central pair are being chased by the police. This takes us to the Intermission (in a film lasting 149 mins) and the second half provides the climax and an explanation of the mystery. This is a mainstream masala movie structured as a ‘buddy movie’ involving a murder mystery, film noir, action, romance and comedy. ‘Romance’ is perhaps the weakest element and more emphasis is placed on action and (black) comedy – the film has had some censorship difficulties because of the violence levels. I was surprised by the extent of the drinking and this was first Indian feature I’ve seen with the frequent on-screen warnings about excessive alcohol use (rather like the warnings on cigarette packets). I was also a little surprised by the more ‘open’ acknowledgement of sexual activity between some of the characters – i.e. in this kind of mainstream blockbuster. Overall, I felt that while the film shared the same ingredients as mainstream Hindi blockbusters, there was a real difference in how these ingredients were used by the filmmakers.
In my limited experience, Tamil films are sometimes more adventurous in their camerawork and use of effects – and, at the same time, somehow more ‘realist’, more ‘connected’ to local culture than their Hindi counterparts. Biriyani demonstrates this with a startling array of devices including motion capture, animation, references to social media technologies etc. The central characters are seemingly more wealthy than most of their audience given their lifestyle, but even so they don’t seem so divorced from mainstream Tamil culture. I was struck in the second half of the film how the plot developed so that a whole network of friends came to the aid of the central character played by Karthi – rather in the way of the group in a ‘new Bollywood’ film like Rang De Basanti.
One scene in particular highlighted the overall difference between Biriyani and many Hindi films. This was a song and dance sequence which appeared in the middle of a chase and involved a flash mob dancing on the platform of a Chennai railway station. I need to see the sequence again but as I understand it, it provided a new clue in unravelling the mystery, a different pleasure in enjoying the song and dance performance and a tribute to a local star (the object of the flash mob). All this gave the impression of being seamlessly shot in a public place with passengers looking on.
Overall, I found the film entertaining even if I didn’t enjoy most of the drinking and sexist jokes. I can see that some audiences would find the film too ‘tricksy’ in the way the plot is handled re the mystery (which also involves a supposed corruption investigation). The script cleverly uses references to the Hollywood hit comedy Hangover and also seeds clues and ‘pre-echoes’ of what might happen later, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.
The film has a soundtrack composed by the prolific Yuvan Shankar Raja, youngest son of the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. I’m not in a good position to judge but it seemed good to me.
I’m pleased that Tamil cinema is getting a bigger profile in the UK but because the industry does not yet publish data on budgets, box office etc. in the same way as Hindi cinema, the industry does not have the profile it deserves in the international market. My own calculations suggest that in terms of films produced and audience numbers, Tamil cinema definitely figures in the international Top 10. There are something like 80 million Tamil speakers worldwide and in India the Tamil industry is well supported. Chennai rivals Mumbai as a production centre.
Actors and filmmakers move frequently between the various South Indian cinemas and also into Hindi and other Northern industries. In Biriyani, the two female leads are both from outside Tamil Nadu. Hansika Motwani is a Sindhi speaker born in Mumbai and Mandy Takhar who plays the femme fatale is ‘Punjabi-British’ and from Wolverhampton. If you haven’t seen a Tamil film, now is your chance to experience a different popular Indian film. I could have gone to see Dhoom 3, but I think I made the right choice.
Official studio trailer: