Pakistan has suffered so much for our entertainment this year. It gave us the grimacing backup villain of Pathaan. It gave us the grimacing primary villain, and the hostile setting, of Gadar 2. It was the sadistic aggressor in two films about Bangladesh, Mujib and Pippa. Most embarrassingly, it allowed itself to be outwitted by Sidharth Malhotra in Mission Majnu. But it’s in Tiger 3 that Pakistan really shows off its versatility, playing evil puppet state, fond relative, nuclear threat and concerned ally.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been tracking the YRF spy films. Like everyone else, they frequently use the ISI and the Pakistani military as antagonists. Yet, no other corner of recent Hindi cinema has made space for so many substantial Pakistani characters. Certainly no other franchise has had the nerve to make two of its protagonists patriotic Pakistanis. The Pakistan of the YRF spy verse is a nation that wants to do right, by its people and even by India, but is hamstrung by a few bad seeds every time. It’s not a nuanced world view, but it’s something.
In Tiger 3, directed by Maneesh Sharma and written by Shridhar Raghavan (War, 2019; Pathaan), the most untenable marriage in the history of spy films unravels. Tiger (Salman Khan) is still doing missions for RAW, who don’t seem even a bit concerned that his wife, Zoya (Katrina Kaif), is ex-ISI. After a dramatic rescue in Saint Petersburg, it’s revealed that Zoya is not only an active agent but is working against Indian interests, coerced by an old mentor, Aatish Rehman (Emraan Hashmi), once deputy chief of the ISI. Aatish has his own reasons to hate Tiger, and soon has the spy couple in a bind, with nuclear codes hanging in the balance.
As with Pathaan, there’s a long Mission Impossible-style passage built around the retrieval of a briefcase. It’s leaden and uninventive but serves to underline what was clear in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017): that Kaif is now a far more compelling action star than Khan. She’s not a natural fighter, but her agility and flexibility go a long way. There’s a scene in a hammam, a riff on the Maggie Cheung-Brigitte Lin fight in New Dragon Gate Inn (1992). Kaif spars with martial artist Michelle Lee, both actors clad only in towels. The treatment isn’t prurient, but the otherwise distracted Diwali morning audience was at its most attentive in these three minutes.
Then there’s Salman. Every director since Kabir Khan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) has had to work around the actor’s limitations, to coax brief flickers of star quality and hope the rest isn’t egregious. It’s been especially painful to watch him in action films: he isn’t in shape or mobile or willing to work hard. He could be a Ma Dong-seok-like bruiser—his Radhe (2021) is a remake of The Outlaws (2017)—if only he’d allow someone to direct him that way and not insist on the same exaggerated action cinema he was doing two decades ago. Even his Pathaan cameo—a rare recent moment of triumph—changes the tenor of the action. One moment Shah Rukh Khan is laying waste to a compartment of toughs in lethal, realistic fashion; minutes later both Khans are making impossible leaps off a plummeting train.
Tiger 3 takes up residence in Pakistan in its second half, but can’t find anything of interest to do there. By the end, Tiger must save Pakistan from itself, an endeavour at once sincere and incredibly patronizing. Raghavan, as much an architect of the YRF spy verse as anyone, might have used up all his ideas for the year on Pathaan and Jawan; apart from the Zoya-as-double-agent business, there’s not even an attempt at surprise. Abbas Tyrewala is badly missed on dialogue duty (Anckur Chaudhry takes over)—there’s nonsense about packing underwear and tiramisu and Bruce Lee’s grandmother. I was hoping Maneesh Sharma might bring some of the energy and edge of his last film, Fan (2016), to the franchise. Instead, he’s defeated by the material, by Khan’s immovability, and the demands of making a splashy action film.
One thing seems clear: the spy in the scarf must go. It won’t be easy. Ek Tha Tiger (2012) made ₹335 crore and kicked off the YRF spy saga (though it was only branded as such later). Tiger Zinda Hai made ₹565 crore and is just outside the top 10 highest-grossing Hindi films of all time. This is, in many ways, the house that Salman built. For a dozen reasons, he can’t live in it anymore. He needs to be thanked for his service and cut loose.