‘Tigers’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Writer-director Danis Tanovich explores the power of multinationals, the media and ethics in a finely crafted true-life story

The salesman who blew the whistle on the baby food scandal in Pakistan becomes an inspiring story of personal courage portrayed by popular young Bollywood star Emraan Hashmi

How far an ordinary man will go to stop a grave injustice must be one of the seven great movie plots, and Danis Tanovich’sTigers leaps into the sub-genre with passionate indignation. This is the true story of a humble Pakistani pharmaceuticals salesman who sacrificed everything to raise an outcry against one of the world's most powerful multinationals (the company is clearly identified as Nestlé, but is referred to as a fictionalized “Lasta”) whose baby formulas mixed with unsafe water were killing infants. One would have to go back to The Constant Gardener’s indictment of illegal drug experimentation by Big Pharma to find as compelling a treatment of the subject. Though it lacks the captivation of John Le Carré’s heart-rending African story, the film’s straightforward approach, mixed with newsreels of painfully sick babies, is effective in mobilizing the audience’s own indignation. The Indian-French production has a number of influential producers aboard and can count Emraan Hashmi, one of Bollywood’s most popular young actors, for release on the subcontinent, while Match Factory can take aim at socially committed Euro audiences.

The pre-title sequence is an informative off-screen exchange of questions and answers between Sen. Edward Kennedy and a spokesman for a baby formula producer during Senate hearings in 1978. With shocking directness, the latter refuses to take any responsibility for the deaths of infants in developing countries. It sets the scene for the story that is to follow

The film seems to be a second stage in the career of Bosnian director Tanovich whose debut feature, the dark comedy No Man’s Land, won an Academy Award. After bringing a real-life couple together with their fictional counter-parts in An Episode in the Life of an Iron-Picker, he and co-scripter Andy Paterson use the device of a filmmaker making a film about the subject to perk up the story. And for once it is effective, because in the end it all comes down to the power, and cowardice, of the media. A down-to-earth TV producer in London, played very credibly by Danny Huston, is in a meeting with a filmmaker, a network lawyer, and a WHO representative (an earnest Maryam D’Abo) and a young man named Ayan, on Skype from Toronto. They are about to make a film about him but need to clear up some troubling points first. So Ayan tells his story from the start.

He’s a salesman who struggles to sell cheap but effective local drugs, in a market where consumers don’t trust them and believe the fancy packaging. Winning a job with the multinational Lasta seems like a dream come true for him and his young wife (Geetanjali Thapa), until a doctor friend returns from Karachi, where he has been studying social medicine, with horrifying news. The Lasta infant formula that Ayan has been selling so successfully to poor women is being diluted with filthy water, and their babies are dying from malnutrition, diarrhea and dehydration. Tanovic’s choice to illustrate this with brief footage of real sick and dying infants brings home the point strongly without being exploitative.

Then Ayan does something unprecedented: he quits his dream job and demands the company stop selling the formula in Pakistan. When he gets a local NGO connected to the World Health Organization involved, his life and that of his family is threatened. Then an offer from German TV turns up that promises to turn him into a hero.   

In the main role, Hashmi is considerably glammed-down to average-looking. He plays convincingly on Ayan’s stubborn innocence coupled with terrible naïvete about the consequences of what he’s doing. Geetanjali Thapa, who won India’s National Film Award last year for her performance in Liar’s Dice, is distractingly beautiful for a simple wife, and it’s a pity she doesn’t have more of a role here.

Production companies: Cinemorphic, Sikhya Entertainment in association with ASAP Films

Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Geetanjali Thapa, Danny Huston, Maryam D’Abo, Khalid Abdalla, Adil Hussin, Satyadeep Misra
Director: Danis Tanovich
Screenwriters: Danis Tanovich, Andy Paterson
Producers: Prashita Chaudhary, Kshitij Chaudhary, Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, Andy Paterson, Cat Villiers, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet
Executive producers: Achin Jain, Karen Tenkhoff, Michael Weber, Praveen Hashmi
Director of photography: Erol Zubcevic
Production designers: Rachna Rastogi, K. K.Murlidharan
Costume designer: Niharika Khan
Editor: Prerna Saigal

Music: Pritam
Sales: Match Factory
No rating, 90 minutes