Tigers Review: Gripping dramatisation of an unsettling real-life story
Danis Tanović’s film, which was released on Zee5 today, is a traditional, yet gripping, underdog story boasting great performances
They arrive on bikes, carrying their boxes of wonder. They loiter outside clinics and hospital corridors, chatting up nurses with the smoothness of a sleuth, one eye always on the doctor’s door. In the healthcare profession, ‘Medical representatives’ — or ‘MRs’ as they are commonly called — enjoy the notoriety of a sycophant. Their job is to keep the prescribers sweet, cajoling them with chocolates, pens and, when the need be, foreign trips and AC installations. Some doctors scoff, then give in — hypocrites under the Hippocratic Oath.
Director: Danis Tanović
Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Geetanjali Thapa, Satyadeep Mishra
Oscar-winning director Danis Tanović’s much-awaited Tigers casts an unflinching eye at unethical marketing practices in Pakistan’s baby formula industry. The film is based on real-life whistleblower, Syed Aamir Raza, a former sales rep for Nestlé Pakistan who battled the Swiss food-and-drink multinational for over 17 years. Now he drives a taxi in Mississauga, Canada and works the graveyard shift. The title, Tigers, alludes to a moniker bestowed upon new sales recruits, who are trained to be ferocious go-getters and thus, for effect, growl.
The growling befits the film’s leading man, Emraan Hashmi, an undeniably talented actor so well past the erotic purring of his early years. Emraan’s character is given the fictionalised name ‘Ayan’ (Nestlé, too, becomes ‘Lasta’, but not without a sly subversion). We meet Ayan as a skillful but down-on-his-luck salesman working for local pharmaceutical companies in 90s Pakistan. Under questionable circumstances, he is hired without a college degree by Lasta’s division head, Bilal (a foxy Adil Hussain), who pushes him to peddle the company’s signature baby formula that — unbeknownst to Ayan — doesn't gel with the country’s unsafe drinking water, killing hundreds of children.
Emraan is terrific in the opening stretches of the film. There's a workaday relatability to the way he slings his leather satchel and goes about doing his job, coaxing paediatricians into playing afternoon cricket and winning them over with freebies. Veteran actors Supriya Pathak and Vinod Nagpal appear as Ayan’s parents, and Geetanjali Thapa as his newly-wedded wife, while Satyadeep Mishra plays the conscientious Dr. Faiz, who makes Ayan see the dark underside of his doings.
Will Ayan — an unlikely David up against a milk-faced Goliath — finally raise his voice? Will there be any takers for his version of the truth, despite the glaring loopholes in the man’s credibility? After all… can a forger be a flagbearer, and a salesman a saint?
Tanović approaches the factual conundrums of his subject matter with (pretend?) caution. There's a self-reflexive tone to the whole affair, as Ayan recounts his story over webcam to filmmakers considering an adaptation. The device is cleverly deployed, claiming objectivity while simultaneously manipulating us with emotional cues. It's mildly disconcerting to watch fiction borrow the tools of documentary as protective headgear. “That's how defamation law works… guilty until proven innocent,” a character waxes vigilant in the film. Later, while taking a final call on the legally precarious project, another condescends, “We must put it all in. That's the only way…”
Tigers is scripted along the traditional trajectory of an underdog story — with barely a payoff or reveal. What makes it work are the earnest performances: from a disarmingly vulnerable Emraan to a sharp and empathetic Maryam D’ Abo, who plays health activist Dr Maggie. The editors use unsettling data and real-life footage to portray the horrors of a global reality, yet the most incisive and affecting notes of their narrative remain the personal ones: such as Ayan sitting on a sofa with a box of formula and watching his toddler son play. There's also a recurring motif of Emraan looking out at an empty parking lot — the film ends with him staring out at the Berlin night sky — that's strangely evocative.
It's at once a victory and a loss that Tigers is getting a digital release. Without a doubt, the film will reach an audience and stir enough hearts that need some stirring, yet there's something markedly cinematic about Tanović’s telling that’s deserving of the big screen. In a constantly widening gap between content and spectacle — where shall the striped ones be?