Editor's note: The following piece has spoilers about the film's plot.
Watching Salman Khan's past films has pretty much been like reading the last dozen 'link-Aadhaar-to-your-phone-kidney-uterus' SMS-es that have landed in my inbox. But we are not here to debate which part of his pants Khan must tug at for the centrepiece dance number. We're here to discuss Katrina Kaif in Tiger Zinda Hai. Now for people who harbour deep affection for Khan's films and can actually tell Tiger Dabangg Hai from Ek Tha Kick, this may seem like an absurd proposal.
Replace the women in the Salman-saves-stuff films with emojis, and they'd fit right into the script. Oh wait, remember to put the ones that dance. In what was easily my highlight of 2017, I imagined All India Bakchod's 'Bollywood Diva Song' taking a heart
warmingexploding dig at a Khan film starring Jacqueline Fernandes. The actress plays a psychiatrist working in Poland in it. In the handful of coherent dialogues she is given, she is only allowed to talk about her relationship with Khan's character who's named like a Haryana license plate -- Devil. A line in AIB's the song goes like this: "She's a scientist in Poland/Who just talks about her boyfriend."
Replace the women in the Salman-saves-stuff films with emojis, and they'd fit right into the script.
So don't blame me if I was pleasantly surprised with Katrina Kaif's introduction scene in Tiger Zinda Hai. Shortly after a never-ending scene which has Khan fighting hungry wolves with bare hands, Kaif makes an entry in the film by slaying a group of armed goons who were trying to rob a departmental store. Of course, her scene didn't last a lifetime like Khan's wolf-fighting one on a picturesque European mountainside, but it managed to exist. Oh also, Kaif's hair was not shampoo-commercial blow dried for it, thank god. In the Kolkata mall I watched the film, the scene ended with a wave of hoots from women, and men. It did start as a surprised squawk though, not the synchronised, practiced shriek that Khan's appearance elicited. Clearly, nobody had come to expect a legitimate (by Bollywood standards) action scene for a female lead in a film starring Khan.
As the film mostly stuck to being a Salman Khan film, there were some pleasant surprises. For example, in one sequence when Khan is (of course) busy saving a hapless child from goons and find himself cornered, Kaif zooms in and actually 'saves' them with a crazy driving stunt usually reserved for men in such films. We're all familiar with the cornered heroine in Hindi movies, who has no hope of survival till the hero swoops in to save the day. As a woman watching that genre of movies, it's possible for feel a twitch of pleasure when the opposite happens.
While the film's plot rapidly moves from the realm of 'lolwut' to the 'someone give me an antacid' zone, you're still led to believe that Kaif's character gets to do spy-kicks-ass stuff, instead of dancing on tankers or some such. She ambushes an enemy van, breaches a building full of goons, slides across floors shooting a rifle, flips and tosses humans around like they do in Bollywood films.
We're all familiar with the cornered heroine in Hindi movies, who has no hope of survival till the hero swoops in to save the day.
I have to say, I'm guilty of feeling a couple of 'who rules the world' feels during a few of those sequences. It's not always logical or carefully considered, but watching women kick ass -- quite literally -- feels satisfying to watch, thanks to years of watching women in Hindi films simper, weep in a corner, flail and desperately wait to be saved by the man. The woman, in this genre of films -- by far the most popular one in India -- exists as an excuse for the hero to show off the achievements of his protein shake.
Writing about women in action films, Kelsea Stahler of Bustle writes: "This point is extremely powerful because so many women in action films, comics, and television have been "fridged" — made victims in order to deepen the emotional journey of male leads. "Powerful" doesn't even begin to describe the effects of allowing female characters to turn that tired, frustrating trope on its head."
So here we were, being told that Kaif's Zoya is a spy as good as her husband and understandably has been deputed by her country to save nurses help captive in Iraq by terrorists. Basically, we're told, the countries they belong to have entrusted them with exactly the same mission. The film tries to stick to that brief for a while, establishing Zoya as a woman who fits the 'action hero' bill. And then, Bollywood rears its horns and they are as ugly as ever.
Since nothing can be bigger than worshipping the male ego, and muscles, in a Salman Khan film, Zoya -- who had till then proved to be ridiculously good as saving herself and others -- has to be sacrificed.
So, in preparation of Salman-saves-the-world finale, Zoya, like in good old Hindi films, is taken captive.
So, in preparation of Salman-saves-the-world finale, Zoya, like in good old Hindi films, is taken captive. And like every second Hindi film of the 80s and the 90s, is gagged and tied to a jeep by the bad guy. Because how else does the hero, get to prove, he's the hero?
Bollywood stuff follow -- 'how dare you touch her (my girl)' and the usual. The entire mission is almost jeopardised by the bashed-up little woman, till the man summons his manhood and makes things right. And almost as a compensation for all the ass Kaif was allowed to kick earlier, she is now literally tied up in heavy chains. Which of course, Khan smashes with an axe, as she looks on tragically.
Phew. The woman is saved. The men are alright. And the egos -- oh come on, the ones that matter -- are happy with their annual Rs 100 crore petting.
I guess, no one expects anyone to ask these questions. Like, would the man's world of Bollywood crumble and shatter if Katrina Kaif's character was allowed to be an equal participant in the fictional rescue mission till the end? I guess, the makers of this film at this point, are hoping womanhood should feel blessed that they didn't have Zoya dance to something that calls her 'Iraqi Icecream' or some such.