In a year when Indian films seemed to devolve from "yay" to "meh", Bollywood ended 2017 with a blast with Tiger Zinda Hai ("Tiger is Alive").
This action-packed sequel to the 2012 blockbuster Ek Tha Tiger ("There Once Was a Tiger") reunites Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Girish Karnad and Gavie Chahal in a thriller that lives up to audience expectations.
At the end of Ek Tha Tiger, Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent Avinash "Tiger" Singh Rathore (Salman Khan) and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent Zoya (Katrina Kaif) leave the spy biz to share a life together, away from the world of espionage.
Tiger's former RAW boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) and ISI's General Abrar (Gavie Chahal) have tried to locate the deadly duo, but have so far been unsuccessful. Tiger's last contact with Shenoy made it clear that the renegade spies would only return when Pakistan and India no longer need ISI and RAW.
When a major terrorist organization takes Indian and Pakistani nurses hostage in an Iraqi hospital, tensions run high. With the terrorist leader's location identified, the American military begins plans to bomb the hospital. Time is running out as India rushes to find a way to rescue the nurses. With the hospital now a militant fortress stronghold, it will be very difficult to reach the hostages, let alone free them.
The only solution: Tiger.
As it turns out, Tiger and Zoya are living in the mountains of Europe where they are raising their young son, "Junior". While they have laid low for many years, Tiger has covertly maintained his connection to RAW. When Tiger is called, Zoya supports his mission.
However, when it is revealed that the nurses are from both India and Pakistan, Zoya joins in the team at a very strategic moment and helps unite RAW and ISI agents together in the common mission.
Tiger Zinda Hai's hostage narrative was loosely based on the 2014 abduction of 46 Indian nurses working in Iraq. They were held in a hospital in Tikrit for some time then transferred to Mosul. The abduction was highlighted in Reuters:
Nearly 50 Indian nurses from the southern state of Kerala have been taken against their will from a hospital in the militant-controlled city of Tikrit in Iraq, India’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. At a briefing with reporters, Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin declined to say who had ordered the nurses to leave the hospital or where they were taken. “They are not going of their own free will,” he said, when asked whether the nurses had been abducted by a militia. “This is a situation where lives are at stake.”
Despite trading in a black flag for a red one, there is no mistaking the reference to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Tiger Zinda Hai - the same group responsible for the abduction of the nurses.
While no shots were fired leading to the release of the hostages in the 2014 incident, their story was no less harrowing. The Indian government was forced to use unconventional diplomatic channels to release the hostages. Each day the women faced uncertainty and lived in constant fear as war raged around them. In an India Today article, nurse Sandra Sebastian detailed the day the hostages were transferred from Tikrit to Mosul:
"[The militants] arrived around 11.30 in the morning and asked us to leave the hospital in 15 minutes. They said they were going to blow up the hospital but wanted to shift us to Mosul. We immediately rang up the Indian Embassy. The officials asked us to try and plead with the militants to spare us, but to go with them if they didn't relent. They said the Government might consider a commando operation to rescue us if things went bad."
The story of the hostage crisis was dealt with previously in the 2017 Malayalam film Take Off. But writer/director Ali Abbas Zafar was so inspired by the powerful story that he knew it offered an opportunity to create a larger narrative. In The Hindu, Zafar explained:
“I researched for six to eight months and wrote a fictional account. I didn’t contact the real people involved because if I do, I’d feel compelled to include other narratives. If real stories have to be retold, I’d have had to do it in a different way.”
According to a Firstpost Showsa article, the gritty drama also gave Zafar an opportunity to showcase the operations of the government and intelligence communities.
The initial draft of TZH was called 360 Hours and the research brought him in close contact with people who were once part of the intelligence machinery of the country. Apart from devouring The Kaoboys of RAW, he also studied the operations of Mossad, CIA and MI 5 to give a definite shape to his hero.
Zafar incorporated other headline-making situations including the heart-wrenching assassination of an American journalist, the plight of a teenage suicide bomber, and the day-to-day challenges of oil workers in Iraq. All of these themes intertwined to construct a complex and compelling cinematic experience.
Having worked with Salman Khan before on Marigold, Ek Tha Tiger and Sultan, Zafar was able to push his stars hard to perform incredible action sequences that add gravitas to their rescue mission.
The cast also features prominent roles for veteran actor Paresh Rawal as Firdauz, an allegiance-challenged go-between for the Iraqi leaders and the American forces, and Iranian actor Sajjad Delafrooz as the intimidating Iraqi leader Abu Usman.
Whether you are an Indian film fan or a Bollywood newbie, Tiger Zinda Hai weaves a captivating story that keeps your attention from start to finish.
In a world where Hollywood churns out films featuring superhuman comic book characters fighting monsters and aliens, Tiger Zinda Hai combines the intensity of real-world geopolitical challenges with a story that focuses on basic humanity and strength of purpose. The relationship of Tiger and Zoya demonstrates the potential to unite two countries with a history of animosity on a common mission - a powerful positive example in a world where alliances are challenged by a single tweet.
Tiger and Zoya may be just the kind of heroes we need for these times.
The following playlist features the trailer and select scenes from Tiger Zinda Hai along with the trailer for the Malayalam film Take Off.
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