On the cusp of Tiger 3's release, we check in on how YRF got here, and where Tiger (Salman Khan) and the franchise will go next.
YASH RAJ FILMS’ Tiger franchise has three movies with three different directors. It’s safe to say that each of the films of this “Tiger trilogy” are really standalone stories that were eventually glued together by YRF’s growing spy universe. The massive success of War and Pathaan gave YRF wings to fly and now they’re using the same template for all their IPs. Nobody is really complaining, to be fair, and the box office returns are proof, but I do miss the good old days of a simple YRF standalone film.
Tiger 3 promises to be a superstar bonanza with cameos by Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, a menacing Emraan Hashmi, and magnificent action pieces. But not too long ago, the typical Bollywood action film did not look like this. Salman has been a part of countless masala action movies that made a bhel puri of mainstream genres like romance, comedy, drama and action, and aimed to give audiences a full paisa vasool experience. There are a few films, though, that seamlessly blend Salman’s effortless — bordering on childlike — persona with his brute onscreen machismo. Dabangg is where this began, but with Ek Tha Tiger we saw an exciting partnership between Salman and Kabir Khan.
Both Dabangg and Ek Tha Tiger had something unique that previous films of the superstar did not have: a director with an authentic vision. Salman didn’t seem out of place as a spy (his last two films were Bodyguard and Ready) and I remember when Ek Tha Tiger released in 2012, the Kabir Khan-Salman Khan partnership was being praised for giving us something fresh and engaging. “Least Salman Khan movie in ages,” one review read. Ek Tha Tiger was not just a vehicle for Salman Khan to flex — it had Kabir Khan’s directorial aesthetic too. The action had almost an international look and feel. It had an emotional and romantic arc that didn’t seem gimmicky but resonated with audiences of all ages. And most of all, it was exciting to see Katrina Kaif play a character who wasn’t merely a damsel in distress.
The stakes should have gotten higher with Tiger Zinda Hai for Salman’s character, but as it turned out, the film became a vehicle for Katrina to show off her action prowess. Tiger Zinda Hai became a turning point in her career. I remember walking out of the theatre thinking someone needs to make a superhero movie with Katrina (I hope that’s still happening?) but it was difficult to look at it as a continuation from the first film. Ali Abbas Zafar brought a nationalistic aesthetic to the trilogy and by crafting an India-Pakistan angle the attempt was to make the film seem bigger than its predecessor. The climax certainly was crafted keeping this intention in mind, because whenever we think of Tiger Zinda Hai, we think of the shot: Salman with a massive AK 47 shooting away at his enemies.
Between these two films, however, the franchise lost its innocent charm and the quiet moments of love between Tiger and Zoya. The film became about its politics, which is ironic, considering the politics of the Tiger films were far more nuanced in Ek Tha Tiger. There was coherent messaging in the first one: that love should triumph all. You could take the climax out of Tiger Zinda Hai and force-fit it to any action potboiler starring Salman and one wouldn’t know the difference. This is not to say the film isn’t fun to watch, but it is starting to seem like with each Tiger film and each YRF spy film, the charm is being compromised for magnitude.
War changed things for Yash Raj Films. Here’s a legacy film studio that was somewhat struggling to find relevance at a time when audiences were pivoting to watching movies and TV shows in the comfort of their home. A studio that always believed in the power of the big screen, in the power of big Bollywood movies, songs, romance. Suddenly, they no longer could crack that formula for a successful mainstream Bollywood film in a post-OTT world. Sure, Tiger Zinda Hai was a massive success but could they reinvent the big action film and make it their own?
With War, YRF was able to find their own grammar for the action genre. The self-aware quality of the film along with Hrithik’s middle-aged sexiness (can’t say “dad bod” because have you seen him??) was a refreshing change, and with its 300+ crore box office success came validation for YRF that they must continue doing the same thing. With Pathaan, they were able to bring a similar visual grammar along with the quintessential Shah Rukh Khan magic. It only then made natural sense to have a movie where all of their spies come together: Kabir from War, Tiger from Tiger Zinda Hai and Pathaan from Pathaan. In Tiger 3, we will finally see that happening. It’s the Marvelisation of Bollywood. Even as Disney struggles to maintain a narrative trope they pioneered (the cross-pollination of characters and storylines from different movie properties), Bollywood is only too ready to make it their own (hi, Rohit Shetty).
Ahead of the big Diwali release of Tiger 3, I revisited Ek Tha Tiger and I felt an intense surge of nostalgia: for a version of Salman Khan that is now long gone (I can only see the Bigg Boss Salman variant everywhere now); for a chemistry between Salman and Katrina that felt so fresh back then but seems too curated today; for a partnership between Kabir Khan and Salman that paved the way for a film like Bajrangi Bhaijaan (a masterclass in how to make a politically-motivated mainstream film). The Tiger in Ek Tha Tiger and the Tiger in Tiger Zinda Hai are two different people. Like long-lost twin brothers who don’t even know of the existence of one another. I don’t know which Tiger we’re going to get with the third film, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Maneesh Sharma’s impressive filmography is giving me hope that he’ll find a way to blend authenticity, charm and politics into a perfect Diwali entertainer.