EK THA TIGER. Director: Kabir Khan.  Players: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Ranveer Shorey, Girish Karnad, Roshan Sheth. Music: Sohail Sen, Sajid-Wajid. Theatrical release (Yashraj)

In an industry notorious for having “camps” of one type of another, it is not unusual that Salman Khan, despite his sizable box office following (Bodyguard, Ready) has never previously worked with Yashraj, the biggest movie studio in Hindi movies. Khan started with the Rajshri label and eventually moved to make his own movies while Yashraj forged an arrangement with Shahrukh Khan and, first with Fanaa and the upcoming Dhoom 3, only recently warmed up to Aamir Khan. When Yashraj enlisted another major star the last time—Akshay Kumar inTashan—was disastrous. Working with Salman Khan in Ek Tha Tiger, has better results.

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If exceedingly noisy and busy film-making were the norm, Ek Tha Tiger would be a champion. What is passed off as a plot has Khan as Tiger, a spy—he works for RAW (loosely equivalent to India’s CIA)—materializing in Dublin to track down a gifted Indian scientist (Seth) suspected of passing India’s military secrets to Pakistan. As both luck and plot connivance would have it—Tiger learns that in order to get close to the scientist, he must first win over the scientist’s attractive assistant Zoya (Kaif). Also as luck would have it, Tiger finds himself drawn to the hard to pin down Zoya, and, mixing business with beauty, falls hook, line and sinker in love with Zoya. And oh yes, did we mention that Zoya is also a spy, working for ISI—loosely equivalent to Pakistan’s CIA?

First with Agent Vinod and now Ek Tha Tiger, an emerging trend is the resurgence of the on-screen subcontinental Cold War, the slow burning often incendiary geopolitical chess game between India and Pakistan since 1947. In the first wave of that Cold War’s plotlines—think Farz (1967), Aankhen (1968) orYakeen (1969)—uniformly referred to a “foreign power ” for fear that Indian censors would not allow naming Pakistan as India’s mortal enemy. It wasn’t until 1970 that Dev Anand broke the onscreen taboo by naming Pakistan in Prem Pujari!  (Never mind that in Rockstar (2011), in the new freer India, Indian film censors blocked out a huge concert banner with the words “Free Tibet.” Does that mean China is the new “foreign power” and onscreen boogey-nation?

Time shifting between Dublin, Mumbai, London and that rarest of foreign locales, Havana—director Khan serves up a visually evocative road trip enhanced by the exotic setting. Former BFFs Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif “reuniting” here hold a surprising amount of interest. Kaif still needs to have her voice dubbed and Khan, in an unusual turn, keeps his shirt on throughout! The spectacle of a RAW agent and an ISI agent both going rogue and being chased by their respective spy agencies is interesting in itself! Other than that, the supporting cast of both Seth and Karnad, as Tiger’s RAW handler, is top notch.

The Yashraj label’s rep for box office success (Vicky Donor, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan), is based on both studio’s uncanny success at converging elevated stagecraft with shrewd marketing. Case in point: With the all-encompassing YouTube emerging as the primary global mass media tool of choice, the studio rolled out a fun-to-watch and stylish version Tiger’s chart-topping “Mashallah” video. Wise move. The ploy not only preempted online pirates—who were bound to roll out crude versions of the popular dance number, regardless —but eyeballs that tuned in to catch “Mashallah” then logically clicked on the other song videos from Tiger also rolled out on YouTube.

If the medium was ever the message, currently it is YouTube. “Mashallah’s” catchy beat—featuring a shirt-on Salman Khan and scantily clad Kaif, along with Wajid Khan’s lilting Arabesque falsetto and set in a nether spy-world—garnered 6.5 million hits within a month. That is quite successful. In comparison, other popular Hindi songs stack up as follows: “Dhunki” (4.5 million), “Munni Badnam Hui” (4.9 million), “Chinta ta ta” (5 million), “Anarkali Disco Chali” (5.7 million). The only Hindi song with more YouTube hits than “Mashallah”—a seemingly unattainable 13.7 million hits—is a record for the megahit “Twist” from Love Aaj Kal.

This not-so-stealth positioning landed Tiger the biggest opening for a Hindi movie ever. With a global take of more than approximately $20 million within three days of a celebrated opening on August 15 (India’s independence day),Tiger also roared to blockbuster status within a week. Salman Khan may not have Aamir Khan’s artistic virtuosity, Hrithik Roshan’s good looks or dance moves or Shahrukh Khan’s media savviness, but for where he is at, Salman Khan has immense box office draw and excels at being a bad boy even in his 40s. Ek Tha Tiger gets a decent bang for a one-viewing buck.

EQ: B

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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