The past couple of years have been rough for actor Emraan Hashmi. Box office hits have been elusive for Bollywood's "serial kisser", who had two releases this year. One was an out and out masala entertainer, Raja Natwarlal, and the other was the flop vigilante-cop drama, Ungli. Not only did the films fail to make money, the films didn't really show Hashmi either having fun with his role or display his acting skills. At least with Tigers, scheduled to be Hashmi's first release in 2015, the actor gets a chance to do the latter.
Directed by award-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, Tigers is an Indo-French-British co-production, starring Hashmi in the lead. Inspired by a true story, Hashmi plays a salesman named Ayan who works for a multinational that manufactures baby formula in Pakistan. When Ayan realizes the formula is actually killing many babies in Pakistan — the poor who buy the product mix it with the water available to them, which is often polluted. This can cause fatal diarrhoea — he challenges and then exposes the multinational's callous disregard for these people.
Bosnian director Tanovic’s debut feature No Man’s Land won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film the same year that Lagaan was nominated. No Man's Land also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001, and Tanovic's An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker won two Silver Bears in Berlin. Tigers has been receiving great praise in the film festival circuit. It's been screened at Toronto and San Sebastian and when it was screened at the Dubai Film Festival earlier this month, Tanovic made the time to chat about Tigers with me.
What was your motivation for making Tigers and how did it get off the ground?
The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.5 million babies die worldwide every year because they are not breastfed. Mothers should breast feed their babies instead of giving them baby formula. But baby formula has been marketed since 20-30 years, and it continues today. I spent eight years trying to make this film. When I met Anurag Kashyap at the Venice Film Festival, I told him I had a script, but nobody would be crazy enough to produce it. He pointed to [producer] Guneet Monga and said, “If there’s one crazy girl, it’s her.”
Why did you name Nestle in the beginning of the film, but later replace the name with Lasta?
First of all, it takes balls to make a film on baby milk, because it is not sexy. The BBC had agreed to do a documentary exposing Nestle’s strategy in Pakistan. We were about to shoot in 2006, but the BBC asked me to change the names. Then they said that even if I changed the names, we could still be sued. So I put back Nestle, but didn’t insist on it because there are 13 multinationals selling baby formula in Pakistan. So the problem is much bigger than just Nestle. Syed Aamir Raza, the salesman on whose life the film is based, is now a taxi driver in Toronto. He came to the Toronto premiere of the film and wept when he was applauded.
As a filmmaker, do you feel like a David taking on a Goliath?
Well, if I can save one life, it’s worth it. Baby formula is not such a big problem in India today. But in Pakistan, we had proof of Nestle bribing doctors to push Nestle over breastfeeding among people who don’t need it, can’t afford it and where it is risky. Many poor families earn only $2 a week, but they believe baby formula will make their babies whiter and brighter. Nestle has made so much money, they don’t need to kill babies to make a bit more money. But in Pakistan, there are more important issues than breastfeeding babies. In the UK, people have been boycotting Nestle products since 20 years.
Why didn’t you shoot in Pakistan? How did you deal with Syed Aamir Raza asking Nestle for a bribe?
When I went to Pakistan, I didn’t feel safe there. So I shot in Patiala (Punjab) in India, where there is also a big film industry and friends in it who can help. When I realized Syed Aamir Raza had negotiated with Nestle for a bribe, the story fell apart. I was devastated. German TV channel ZDF, which was making a documentary on him, received an audio tape of Raza demanding a bribe from Nestle and dropped the film. Eventually Raza did not take the bribe. Later, I reflected, the story could be more interesting because before, Raza he was a hero. Now he’s human.
How did you choose Emraan Hashmi as the protagonist?
Hashmi is a very calm, decent guy. I had watched some of his Bollywood hits and found it funny that he had such a different image in India. But you need someone like him: a big Indian star, who is willing to take risks.
You’ve spent a long time shooting in India. What are your impressions of the country?
Indians are rather sweet. They are little giants. It’s a huge country, yet there is an innocence about it. But I hope the film will be shown in Pakistan too. I will be up against "Spiderman 13 kills Batman 16". I myself want to do a Spiderman film, but Sarajevo has only three high buildings. If Spiderman climbs up them, he will ask, “Where the hell do I go now?”
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published Date: Dec 19, 2014 11:02 am | Updated Date: Dec 19, 2014 11:02 am