There are two Khans in Ek Tha Tiger: Kabir and Salman.

What you think of the movie will depend on which Khan’s work you’re going to see.

If (like most people) you paid up to see a Salman Khan movie, there’s only one phrase that sums it up: Total paisa vasool. It’s full-on Salman in Ek Tha Tiger as he dishes out classic Bollywood-style herogiri, from his dramatic entry to his deshbhakti, from bashing up goons single-handedly to romancing and rescuing the heroine, from the maar-dhaad climax to riding off into the sunset and a happy ending. There’s bone-crunching, diving, somersaulting, speeding action; his special brand of cheeky romance; those deadpan one-liners; a couple of dances; and, yes, yes, a shirtless scene. And he makes it all look good. This is stardom at its peak — all Salman has to do to burn up the screen is simply be.

If, on the other hand, you’re curious to see how director Kabir Khan can channel all that blinding charisma, I’ve got some bad news for you. This is the director’s most commercial film yet. Not a bad thing at all in itself, but the problem is this film’s all mixed up and confused about whether to take itself seriously or not. Kabir’s first film, Kabul Express, shot almost documentary style, in the badlands of Afghanistan, made everyone sit up with its individuality. Then came New York, which was glossy, filled with stars and much further down the commercial scale. It had the director’s stamp all the way, though.

Ek Tha Tiger has hit the other end of the commercial scale, complete with those all-too-familiar banalities and illogicalities. There’s a dream sequence (not again!) to allow the lead actors to do a Bollywood dance with everyone on the streets of Dublin joining in. You have a RAW and an ISI agent supposedly on the run together, trying to avert near-certain death at the hands of both the intelligence agencies…and what do they do? Zip around in an open red speedboat in Istanbul, prance about the streets of Havana, carry on their pyaar-vyaar out in the open for all to see. There are far too many holes to list here — you can have fun spotting them yourself.

The biggest disappointment, however, is that all through Ek Tha Tiger, you see flashes of the Salman Khan imprint, and it seems to be more of the hero’s movie than the director’s. Reports from the sets and the Yashraj studio have it that the actor offered many ‘suggestions’ and the film does bear that out.

One sight of Katrina Kaif’s shapely bottom is enough to make a ‘legendary’, focused RAW agent morph instantly into the goofy admirer with goofier dialogue that Salman specialises in. In fact, he constantly switches from his tough Bodyguard avatar to his Chulbul Pandey one all through the movie.

Now, the question is not whether Salman can take a break from playing Salman. Or whether he wants to. The question is: Do we want him to? If we’re talking of that vast amorphous entity called the audience, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘No’. This film has blockbuster written all over it, and it will get closer to 3 Idiots’ record than any other. It’s win-win-win-win for the stars, director, studio and fans.

Salman has, by his own confession, more or less played himself (or a heightened, caricature-ish, half-comic version of himself) in his last three movies — Bodyguard (2011), Ready (2011) and Dabangg (2010) — and we know how they all fared at the box-office. Wanted (2009) was pretty much in the same category; indeed, it seems to have kicked off this phase.

In-between Wanted and Dabangg, however, he also did Veer (2010), London Dreams (2009) and Main Aurr Mrs Khanna (2009), plus Yuvraaj (2009), just before Wanted — and we know how all those bombed at the BO.

So why would Salman play it any other way but his way?

Some of us (me included) had hoped that Kabir Khan, who is not part of the superstar’s inner circle, would, for that very reason, give us a new Salman. Don’t scoff — it’s not unheard of. Look at the quiet beauty of the performance Ashutosh Gowariker got out of Shah Rukh Khan in Swades. Or how Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast Ajay Devgan so magnificently against type in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. How Vishal Bhardwaj transformed Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi in Omkara. And remember Amitabh Bachchan in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan and Mili, films that came in-between Zanjeer and Deewar? Salman has done it himself in films like Hum Saath Saath Hain or Tere Naam. It can happen.

So some of us were foolish enough to hope. Because this Khan can be one smart actor when he chooses to be one. Problem is, he’s got that body, those looks and that flesh-tingling screen presence, and he can ride just on that — and his fans’ unquestioning loyalty — all the way to Rs 100 crore and more when he’s being lazy. Proof: That disgrace of a movie called Ready.

Thanks to Kabir Khan and Yashraj Films, Ek Tha Tiger is way ahead of most of Salman’s films in technical terms and gloss. What it lacks is the kind of honesty and courage that Dabangg had; that was a film that went against the tide and was as unpretentious as it was supremely clear in its vision. It got its reward too, when it became Hindi cinema’s second highest grosser.

Makes you think: Is Ek Tha Tiger the best Hindi cinema’s topmost superstar, leading actress, most successful studio, and one of its more accomplished, individualistic directors could come up with? Give me Dabangg any day.

PS. Did anyone ask about Katrina? She looks mouth-watering — pretty enough for a man to risk his life for. And that’s about it.

(This article was published on August 16, 2012)
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