If you consider this new film along with his last, the Berlin Silver Bear-winning “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker,” as well as the approach of his previous “Triage” and the Oscar-winning “No Man’s Land,” there can be no denying Bosnian director Danis Tanovic‘s powerful sense of social injustice and laudable desire to give earnest voice to the marginalized, the oppressed and the exploited, especially in conflict-riven or economically depressed situations. But it’s an approach that requires a certain sacrifice, especially if it takes a reportedly true story as its basis —a sacrifice of the easier, more satisfying grand arcs of traditional narrative fiction: the fall-and-rise hero story, the David-and-Goliath narrative, or the familiar inspirational triumph-over-adversity theme. Real life and real problems tend not to fit into such tidy patterns, and if you wish to honor that reality and acknowledge the potentially warping factor of your own role as a filmmaker, you invite doubt and ambiguity. And that doesn’t always work to your film’s favor.
“Tigers” takes aim at a shocking, grotesquely underreported ongoing scandal about Nestle’s disregard for human life in its pursuit of baby formula profits. It’s a film in which Tanovic tries to reconcile the demands of real-life filmmaking with the natural impulse to unkink the narrative so that it might fit into a familiar pattern. His solution is to have the story proper unfold in a more or less linear, classic one-good-man-taking-on-the-system manner, and then to encase it within a framing device in which a producer (Danny Huston) is investigating the main protagonist with a view to mounting a narrative film. It’s a solution that is only partially successful: on one hand, it gives Tanovic scope to comment on the filmmaking/true story process and to defang potential accusations of whitewashing in advance by interrogating the motives of the chief whistleblower Ayan himself (later on, Ayan is revealed to be keeping a not-terribly-compromising secret that nonetheless threatens to derail the project). But the meta-story of the onscreen film’s team trying to divine the truth, and to decide which truth they want to tell, also costs the movie dearly —it pulls us away from the real issue and splinters the simple empathy and moral outrage that the core story effortlessly engenders.
In Pakistan in 1994, Ayan (Emraan Hashmi), a young salesman working for local pharma companies whose products are widely mistrusted by the public and the medical establishment, strikes it big when he lands a new job with (Nestle proxy) Lasta. Given a slush fund he can dip into to influence doctors, nurses and pharmacists into promoting his company’s brand of baby formula (and recommending it over breast milk), the likeable Ayan quickly becomes a key part of the Lasta team, sales skyrocket and Ayan’s family and new wife (Geethanjali Thapa) rejoice in his success. But Ayan’s friend Dr. Faiz (Satyadeep Misra) drops the revelation that he has witnessed countless infant deaths due to mothers feeding their babies the Lasta formula but diluting it with bad water, which leads to diarrhea, then catastrophic dehydration and finally organ failure. Be warned, the sudden images of dying, emaciated babies are in no way faked or staged and are extremely upsetting, as they should be.
Horrified at the part he has played in these entirely avoidable deaths, Ayan at first naively assumes that his bosses will be similarly concerned. And when that turns out not to be the case, he quits Lasta, and at considerable risk to himself and his growing family, makes the exposure of these lethal business practises his crusade.
Tanovic is a highly skilled director, and his crafting of this story in tandem with an excellent “everyman” performance from Bollywood star Hashmi (not super sure why no one comments on his wife being the most beautiful woman on the face of the planet) is surefooted and compelling. The clean lines of narrative fiction, almost simplistically put forward here, actually help our understanding of the great wrong the company is engaged in. The story of the baby formula deaths and Ayan’s attempts to atone for his unwitting part in them is good enough, and Tanovic’s grip on the material is sure enough, that it would have made a perfectly effective if formally unadventurous feature all by itself. Ironically, that film is exactly the one Danny Huston’s producer character seems to be trying to make.
But Tanovic clouds issues that don’t need clouding, such as that investigation into Ayan’s personal integrity, which is simply not particularly germane to the substantive issues at stake here. And so we get awkward, jarring moments like an on-camera discussion about whether or not to use the brand name “Nestle,” which culminates in the on-screen producers deciding against it and changing the name to “Lasta” instead. Yet in the meta-meta film that is Tanovic’s movie, “Nestle” has been said, the logo has been shown, and no one’s ass is covered, so what exactly is the point of that discussion?
The heart of this film is the righteously outraged presentation of the facts of the case as Tanovic understands them as they pertain to the harm that Nestle has and continues to inflict in this region. Outside of that central thread, the film wavers in both intent and execution. And so we find ourselves in the unusual position of wishing he had turned in a more traditionally-shaped, straightforward film and eschewed the embellishments regarding the struggles of the filmmaker in relation to the story he’s telling. Those were struggles Tanovic obviously overcame, and so surely he could have presented a clear-eyed, engaging and persuasively argued outright fictional exposé (albeit based-on-a-true-story). That film might also have more easily found a wider audience, and thereby convinced a greater number of people of the heinous nature of this unreported crime than the complicated half-truths and self-reflexivity of this more ambitious undertaking. [B-]