What an ordinary man does when faced with extraordinary circumstances proves the strength of his character and the weave of his moral fibre. Does he give in meekly like a mouse to the rigors of unprecedented pressures, and beat a retreat down the mouse-hole of obscurity? Or does he roar like a tiger in the face of insurmountable adversity, to go ahead and find his place in the annals of history?
Ayan, the protagonist of Tigers, ZEE5’s glittering cinematic tour de force, proves himself of the latter ilk. Played with utter earnestness by Emraan Hashmi, Ayan emerges an unlikely hero, a brave-heart who draws on the support of his family, to take on the formidable might of big pharma.
It is a most intriguing premise; and therein lies a tale of such guts and gumption, that it’s enough to give one goose bumps with its sheer implausibility. And the fact that it’s based on a true story, recounting the pluck of a real-life David who took on a Goliath-esque behemoth, adds to its allure like no other. Tigers is a tale, the likes of which are hard to come by.
The movie grabs our attention from the first frame itself, and never lets go till the very end. A pristine white background takes on an ominous shade, when stark black letters are typewritten on the screen, delivering damning evidence against the greed of the corporate world. Senator Edward Kennedy’s voice rings out in the wary silence, asking the representative of a baby foods giant whether the company is aware of and ready to take responsibility for the millions of babies that are dying in poor third world countries as a result of being fed their infant formula. In a telling instant, the representative replies with a very emphatic ‘No’. This disconcerting exchange, better known as the Senate hearings of 1978 against the MNC in question, sets the tone for the events to follow.
Oscar-winning Bosnian director, Danis Tanovic (Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, 2001, for No Man’s Land, beating our very own Lagaan), employs an interesting meta device to get across the trepidations faced by the makers in going ahead with the making of the film. Any falsity in Ayan’s story could put them at considerable risk of huge legal repercussions from the MNC concerned, spelling disaster for the entire bunch.
So, the doubts and concerns of the real life producers, writers and director are replicated by their on-screen avatars. The story unfolds in a nondescript living room, with a fictionalised version of the makers’ debates and deliberations. The producer (well-known Hollywood actor, Danny Huston), the writer and their legal expert are on Skype with Ayan, who’s holed up in Toronto at the time.
As Ayan recounts his story, the trio realises that his is a story that needs to be told before the world. But not before they decide to replace the MNC’s actual name with the make-believe ‘Lasta’.
Ayan is a small-time pharmaceutical salesman in a tiny town in Pakistan. Spurred by his new bride, Zainab (Geetanjali Thapa), to seek new vistas, Ayan lands a dream job as a salesman in Lasta, a large multinational corporation that sells baby formula as a substitute for breast milk. On his first day on the job, his senior, Bilal (Adil Hussain), hands him a wad of crisp notes, which Ayan is to spend on gifts to please his targets- top doctors and nurses at big hospitals. Bilal calls the currency, ‘Impress money’.
Ayan’s chutzpah, easy knack for forging connections with doctors and the gifts he plies them with, work like magic; and sales of the Lasta baby formula boom. Ayan’s prosperity rises in tandem with Lasta’s booming sales. But the bubble bursts several years later, when Dr Faiz (Satyadeep Mishra), a doctor he had grown especially close to, returns from Karachi after doing his Masters there. Dr Faiz opens Ayan’s eyes to the horrors perpetrated by the infant formula that Ayan so happily peddles.
The disturbing truth is that MNCs, by doling out freebies to doctors to push their product, are selling poor, third-world people a baby formula they are too poor to buy, and have absolutely no need for. The result – what once was a largely breast-feeding community now substitutes breast milk with baby formula at the behest of doctors and nurses, most of whom owe allegiance to Ayan and Lasta. The impoverished mothers dilute the formula with dirty, contaminated water, leading to compromised immunity due to lack of breast-feeding, and severe gastroenteritis in the babies, followed by diarrhoea and death. Thousands of children are dying because of the contaminated and diluted formula that their mothers are feeding them.
At this stage in the movie, the director intersperses his narrative with real footage of some very sick babies fighting for their lives in Pakistani hospitals. The images are heart-rending, to say the least.
A stunned Ayan chucks his job, something Dr Faiz finds flabbergasting. He never expected Ayan to go to the lengths he eventually does, as he recounts to the fictitious production team. Yes, even Dr Faiz is grilled by the team on Skype, to confirm the veracity of Ayan’s claims. Ayan painstakingly files evidence with the WHO, of Lasta’s payoffs to doctors, thus becoming persona non grata in his own town. He teams up with Maggie (one-time Bond girl, Maryam d’Abo) who runs an NGO called HUB, to bring Lasta’s subterfuge before the world.
Ayan, however, is a reluctant hero. At one point in time, he wants to backtrack and give up the battle. But his wife and parents (Vinod Nagpal and Supriya Pathak) spur him on to do the right thing. Thus, Ayan trudges on, towards an uncertain culmination – will he emerge a hero or will he lose everything worth fighting for?
Emraan Hashmi is simply brilliant in these scenes. He skilfully puts across the vulnerability, fear, apprehension and despondency that Ayan feels in his bleakest moments. His deglamourized avatar in Tigers is a far cry from the flamboyant bloke we’re so used to seeing. He simply blends into his surroundings with a nonchalance that is as outstanding as it is endearing. It’s a class act from an actor who has matured like fine wine with each subsequent outing. Emraan Hashmi has come a long way from his earlier, serial-kisser days; and he very emphatically proves it to all and sundry with his on-point portrayal of Ayan.
One particularly weak moment in Ayan’s struggle leads to his undoing. This sequence, in particular, slams home the cowardice and faint-heartedness of the media, which prevents them from taking up cudgels on behalf of the supressed. The end, when it comes, is bleak and far from optimistic. For once, we root for the soppy, syrupy happy endings of mainstream Bollywood flicks.
That notwithstanding, Tigers is a tale that is truly inspiring. The writers (Danis Tanovic and Andy Paterson), producers (Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, Andy Paterson, Prashita Chaudhary, Kshitij Chaudhary, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet and Cat Villiers) and the director (Danis Tanovic) deserve a standing ovation to make a film on a subject that is decidedly controversial, a subject that lesser makers wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole.
Tigers had to wait for four long years before the public could feast it eyes on it – that the MNC in question put its entire might to stop its release is clear. Even the mighty BBC refused to air it on its platform. Bravo Zee5, to up the ante, and give Tigers a release befitting its stature. A pity it couldn’t enjoy a theatrical release. Tigers is a tale that must be seen and its ramifications felt in the corridors of power. That would be the happy ending it deserves.
After all, David has to beat back Goliath. That’s what legends are made of!
IWMBuzz rates Tigers 4/5.
(Written by Rashmi Paharia)