I first became vaguely aware of Tiger Shroff in 2014 – it was around the time his debut film Heropanti was due for release, and I remember seeing promos with the song “Whistle Baja”. A diehard devotee of late 90s and early to mid-2000s Bollywood, I was sceptical of the new wave of star kids in the 2010s and dismissed him, assuming he’d disappear after a film or two.


For various personal reasons, I took a hiatus from Bollywood viewing from 2015 to 2020, but when I did return, I asked Bollywood Twitter for recommendations, and everyone told me to watch War (2019). For a long time, I didn’t – purely because at that time I couldn’t think of anything less appealing than a “Tiger Shroff action movie” – but finally, one day, I relented. And from the moment Tiger Shroff waltzed on screen for his three-minute, single-shot, music-less action sequence intro in white pants, I was forever changed.


I am now a constant source of irritation to my friends, who are probably sick of me talking about Tiger Shroff but are too polite to say anything. I have seen every film of his to date – some of them many times over. I have never liked action movies, but I’ll happily hand over $7 for an online rental to watch Tiger Shroff rip his shirt off and punch a helicopter out of the sky. My obsession is bewildering – I don’t even date men. So why do I look at Tiger Shroff the way Tiger Shroff looks at Hrithik Roshan in War?

It is a look of professional admiration, obviously.


I joke (mostly), but I am not alone in my obsession. At the time of writing, Shroff has a whopping 33.5 million Instagram followers and another 5.1 million on Twitter. His popularity is undeniable.


As a foreign viewer with an admittedly Western perspective, I am definitely not well placed to dissect the popularity of Shroff in India, so I can’t speak for his other fans – but I can try to get to the root of my own Tiger Mania.

****


The son of superstar Jackie Shroff, Tiger made his Bollywood debut in 2014 with the action/romance film Heropanti. Shroff has been accused by his detractors of benefitting from nepotism – and defended by his fans, who argue that he works hard and has earned his success. To that, I say – both of these can be true at the same time.

Like father, like son.


There is little doubt that being a star kid helped him get a foot in the door, but Shroff is also known to be highly hard-working. He works out extensively, is a trained martial artist who does his own stunts, and while he doesn't quite move with the boneless fluidity of Hrithik Roshan (honestly, who can?) he is undoubtedly one of the best dancers of his generation.


But for all his hard work, critics have not been entirely kind to Shroff – especially when it comes to acting. An India Today review of Heropanti noted that “There are many things that debutant Tiger Shroff can do with ease. Back flips, aerial kicks, hip-hop dancing. But acting is not one of them.” Having seen all eight of his films, I concede that his dramatic range has limitations.


Take, for example, this scene from the film Munna Michael (2017), about an orphaned baby who grows up dreaming of becoming a Michael Jackson impersonator. In the emotional climax of this film, the lead character Munna is suffering from a fresh gunshot wound to the leg but has just managed to save his girlfriend from being kidnapped, win a national dance competition, and redeem his father’s honour as a Michael Jackson impersonator. This is the single greatest moment of his life.

You can tell that this is the emotional climax of the film because there is confetti.


Emoting may not be his strong suit, but he has cultivated a devoted fandom, nonetheless.


****


We often speak of films in the context of auteur theory (a term first popularized by critic Andrew Sarris in 1962) – which is the idea that the director is the author of the film and the one whose vision is credited for the work. This is sometimes – but not always – applicable in Bollywood. Academic and author Vijay Mishra notes that from the 1950s onward, "Popular cinema in India, perhaps even more so than in Hollywood, became the cinema of the star rather than the cinema of the director or the studio." (‘The Actor as Parallel Text: Amitabh Bachchan’ from Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire)


Bollywood does have auteur directors – think Karan Johar or Sanjay Leela Bhansali – but films of Tiger Shroff are unquestionably star-driven. Tiger Shroff is a brand, and the cinema of Tiger Shroff is replete with his trademarks. There is the requisite dancing and fighting, of course. There are frequent and often unnecessary parkour sequences. He has a small oeuvre of facial expressions (I have counted four) that he draws on repeatedly. And most importantly, as Twitter user @Foamyrokks eloquently stated in a Letterboxd review of Heropanti, “the true goal of any Tiger Shroff film is to creatively get him shirtless as many times as possible.”


The Baaghi franchise is perhaps the best example of Shroff’s star-powered cinema. Baaghi (2016) was directed by Sabbir Khan, with Baaghi 2 (2018) and Baaghi 3 (2020) by choreographer-turned-director Ahmed Khan. The films are sequels in name only – they have nothing to do with each other, except that in each of the films Shroff plays a character named Ronnie, who is spurred to violent action by a kidnapping (of his girlfriend in Baaghi, his ex-girlfriend’s daughter in Baaghi 2, and his brother in Baaghi 3). They are like three alternate universe versions of the same character, with each film building on the previous one in its level of absurdity. Their sole purpose is to demonstrate Shroff’s fighting abilities – and in that regard, they deliver.

I don’t entirely discount the role of the directors – some Tiger vehicles are better executed than others. The films of Sabbir Khan, who gave us Baaghi, Heropanti, and the criminally underappreciated Munna Michael, have a humour and heart to them which is missing from Ahmed Khan’s Baaghi 2 and Baaghi 3. But at the end of the day, these are Tiger Shroff movies first and foremost, and crafted entirely to showcase his trademark skills (and abs).


It was director Siddharth Anand who really figured out how to maximize Shroff’s potential – ironically, in the only film of his career where he is not the primary lead. The highest-grossing Bollywood film of 2019, War saw Shroff play doting second fiddle Khalid to megastar Hrithik Roshan’s suave salt-and-pepper action hero Kabir – and it is easily his best performance to date. His emotional range is still limited, but it works. When the film’s biggest twist drops, it’s doubly effective, because Shroff’s face has given absolutely nothing away beforehand.


Shroff has also spoken extensively in interviews about his real-life admiration for Hrithik Roshan, and this sentiment radiates through the screen in War. (So much so that the film can arguably be read as queer text – but that is a different article for a different day.)


War is a cinematic masterpiece (I will die on that hill), but it is also the outlier in Shroff’s career to date. While all his usual trademarks are present, the bulk of the film’s success can still be attributed to the star power of Hrithik Roshan and the Yash Raj brand.


****


Looking at Shroff’s remaining body of work, the question remains – are his films “good”?

Critics say no.


Whether or not a film is good or bad is always a subjective assessment, to an extent. Bollywood itself has something of an international reputation for making “bad” films, which I think is largely unfair. The sheer number of films produced means there will inevitably be varying levels of quality, but I also believe that a lot of criticism levelled at Bollywood (particularly from foreign viewers) demonstrates an unfamiliarity with Bollywood cinematic conventions.


But even reviewers in India dislike the films of Tiger Shroff. Take, for example, India Today, who said “Heropanti is nothing but zeropanti”, or the Hindustan Times, who said of Munna Michael that “this film makes even Nawazuddin Siddiqui look bad.”


On one hand, I disagree with India Today and the Hindustan Times – but on the other hand, I would struggle to make a case for most Tiger Shroff films as “good”. So why do I love watching them?


In an article in The Cut titled “The Psychological Appeal of Truly Bad Movies”, writer Adam Kovac references comedian and actor Paul Scheer, who has discussed the appeal of so-called bad movies on his podcast How Did This Get Made? since 2010. Kovac notes that “To Scheer, it’s important to define the terms. Not all bad movies are entertaining. To be worthwhile, they require a sense that someone was actually trying.”


And here is where I think Shroff succeeds, spectacularly. Despite an arguably limited range of facial expressions, he never feels like he’s phoning it in. There’s an earnestness about him that elevates the material beyond what’s on the page.


My favourite example of this is Munna Michael – perhaps my favourite “good bad movie” of the past decade. The premise is delightfully absurd: a washed-up Michael Jackson impersonator (played by Ronit Roy) finds a baby on the street and brings it home. The baby grows up to be Tiger Shroff (playing the titular role of Munna) – who also dreams of becoming a professional dancer/Michael Jackson impersonator. Somewhere along the way, he teaches a gangster (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to dance and gets involved in a plot to kidnap a woman (Nidhhi Agerwal). This all culminates in a televised dance competition judged by Farah Khan (in a cameo as herself).


Would I say this movie is “good”? Probably not. Did I have a great time? I sure did.

The lyrics may be questionable, but this song is a bop.


To be fair, from a purely technical perspective, Munna Michael is not a bad film. In some places, like the large-scale dance numbers and fight sequences, it is actually quite good.


But while the films of Tiger Shroff excel in their action and dance sequences, they often fall down at the script level. The script for Munna Michael is problematic and misogynistic at best. Most of the plot revolves around Munna (Shroff) and Mahinder (Siddiqui) attempting to kidnap a woman. In one scene, Mahinder slaps his wife – an act which is completely unnecessary and serves virtually no purpose in the film. In another scene, Munna drugs a woman with the intention of kidnapping her.


And yet, despite these moments, the film is genuinely hilarious – due in large part to Shroff’s willingness to commit 110% to a character whose lifelong dream is to become a Michael Jackson impersonator and deliver dialogues like this with perfect, expressionless conviction.


Shroff has stated many times that he’s a Michael Jackson fan – so perhaps his passion for the subject matter translated on screen in the same way his admiration for Hrithik Roshan translated in War. As silly as the material is, you get the impression that he’s really trying – he wants to be here.


****


It feels important to acknowledge that while I enjoy some of Shroff’s films ironically – other viewers may enjoy them unironically, and their opinions and experiences are as valid as my own.


It also feels important to note that there is a lot to criticize in Shroff’s work (above and beyond the acting). As much as I enjoy the shirtless fighting and dancing and unnecessary parkour sequences, most of these films are incredibly misogynistic. Women primarily exist as love interests who get kidnapped (if they’re lucky) or killed (if they’re not) to spur the hero to action. And Baaghi 2 and Baaghi 3 are so heavy on hyper-nationalism and Islamophobia that I found them even difficult to watch.


Of course, Shroff is not writing these films, and this same criticism could be levelled at many Bollywood action movies and stars. But it would be disingenuous not to mention how problematic some of his films are – and with 30+ million fans and his influence growing by the day – this content matters. (Personally, I am holding out hope for more dance movies and a Hrithik-Tiger romance in War 2.)


I fell in love with Bollywood fifteen years ago because I love escapism. I like big, dramatic plots and spectacular musical sequences. Returning to Bollywood after my hiatus, I noticed that many of the films from the past five years or so leaned more into realism, with an emphasis on modern relationships. Instead of catching up on all these new films, I find myself going back and re-watching my favourites from the 90s and 2000s. And there is something about Tiger Shroff’s films that take me back to that era.


Who knows how long my Tiger Mania will last? It’s possible that the time I discovered Shroff – about eight months ago, in mid-2021 – has something to do with my current infatuation. The past two years have created so much uncertainty for everyone that planning for the future – even a month or two out – feels impossible. But for now, Tiger Shroff movies, with all their Tiger trademarks, are strangely comforting in their predictability.

Luna would rather be watching Citizen Kane.


incurato_site_background.png

The Testimony

Many in Pakistan have considered the sari a foreign item of clothing. Generations of Pakistani women have insisted on wearing it anyway.

Issue
#
June 14,2021
Monica Jha
output-onlinegiftools.gif
incurato_site_background.png

About the Author

output-onlinegiftools.gif

Author

Author Description