London Indian Film Festival: Tigers Review
Tigers is above all, a film espousing a humanitarian cause. Directed by Oscar-winning director Danis Tanovic, it is a collaboration between Indian and UK producers and backed by the NGO Baby Milk Action. It retells the true story of Syed Aamir Raza, a former employee of Nestlé Pakistan, who took a stand after he discovered the disastrous impact of the company’s baby formula on impoverished families.
Tigers is subtler than the average issue-based film. It begins by showing fictional filmmakers (one of whom is played by Danny Huston) wondering whether they should make the feature at all. In order to decide, they ask Ayan (a stunning performance from Bollywood star Emraan Hashmi), the protagonist of the film, to tell his story. From there we flashback to Pakistan, about a decade earlier, when Ayan was struggling to make ends meet as a sales representative for a local pharmaceutical company.
With the encouragement of his wife (the equally stellar Geetanjali Thapa), he obtains a job at Nestlé (in the film renamed Lasta) and is made responsible for selling their baby formula to medical professionals. As he tells his story, the fictional filmmakers cut in on occasion to ask for clarifications. Their questions and doubts match those audiences are likely to have and so this device works remarkably well. We are shown a discussion during which they decide to rename Nestlé to Lasta - a clever way of implicating the company, while presumably avoiding legal issues and involving other multinationals who have similar practices.
At first, the new job is seen as a blessing by the young man’s lower middle-class family. Ayan excels at the role, which Lasta tells him involves bribing nurses and medical staff with their products to gain access to doctors, whom he then targets with tailored gifts. Writers Andy Paterson and Danis Tanovic make a point of demonstrating how this transforms Ayan and his family’s lives - they move to a new home, are able to send gifts to their neighbours, and are welcomed at medical social events.
However, through his friend Dr Faiz (Satyadeep Misra), Ayan discovers that the baby formula is often used with infected water by poor mothers. This leads to severe diarrhoea, and frequently, the death of babies. Breastfeeding is much safer - and as such, Nestlé is selling impoverished women a product which they don’t need, and endangers their children. Repelled, Ayan leaves his job and entreats government bodies and international organisations to put a stop to their sale. A long battle ensues against the company, aided by NGO worker Maggie (Maryam d’Abo), to bring the story to light.
The film avoids being overly sentimental by showing Ayan’s flaws as well as his accomplishments honestly. At times he wavers in his resolve (and, brought under such pressure, who wouldn’t?). The filmmakers include all the case’s details, along with the hesitations and uncertainties which it raises. This makes the story feel very real and all the more engaging.
However, the ending is a little abrupt. In a way, it has to be - in real life, Syed Aamir Raza has not achieved any great victory over Nestlé. If anything, the release of this very feature about him is as close as it gets. Meanwhile, the fictional filmmakers are told that they cannot make the film - the insurance costs against the risk of being sued by a multinational company are too high. This is in fact what happened to the British producers of Tigers, who had to go to India to find funding instead.
Tigers’ pacing suffers from being so closely tied to a real life story, and the dialogue at times falters into the cliché, especially in the scenes involving the NGO, journalists, and film-makers. Nonetheless, the film is fascinating in documenting the frightening influence of multinationals as well as the devastating sacrifices whistle-blowers are made to endure for speaking out. It’s an instructive watch, supported by excellent performances from its cast.