(Delite and other theatres in Delhi and elsewhere)

In the opening sequence when the boot meets the cheek in ultra slow motion, you dread you are being fed yet another Ready -made Salman curry, but not quite; surprisingly, director Kabir Khan has come up with a new recipe for the current tiger of the box office.

Kabir wants to put his stamp without stamping on Salman’s toes. A tough ask, considering Salman’s current status, but Kabir proves to be an astute ring master. This tiger roars and romances in equal measure. Call it hygienic, tame or escapist, Yash Raj banner manages to salvage Salman from his raucous ways to give us a breezy romance with dollops of mind-blowing action. No envelope is pushed in terms of art; it is just a return to good old family entertainer, which was missing from the Bollywood bouquet for some time.

Salman plays Tiger, a fearless RAW agent who is sent to Dublin to keep an eye on an eccentric scientist (Roshan Seth) who seems to be sharing secrets with Pakistan’s ISI. There on the job he comes across the professor’s fetching householder, Zoya (Katrina Kaif). For a change, his heart misses a beat and the love story of the spy begins. Or is it spies? Some years back Anil Sharma tried it with Sunny Deol but unfortunately he took himself and the spy too seriously. Recently Sriram Raghavan ventured into this territory with Agent Vinod but his indulgence sucked his ambitions. Kabir doesn’t commit that mistake. He knows he has a beast in hand with whom you can’t experiment much. But that doesn’t mean a licence to run amok.

For all those looking for a similarity with a real life agent, the first turncoat that is eliminated is called Ravinder. Sad for the black tiger but this Tiger is a different animal.

There is nothing raw about the film for the spies are straight out of comic books or you can say new Yash Raj template. Nobody double-crosses! But Kabir and his co-writer Neelesh Misra ensure that there is an intrinsic logic to the proceedings, just enough to keep the escapades credible within the realm of a Bollywood spy thriller. Like when Tiger pretends to be a writer, Zoya points out that his hands don’t look like pen holders …or how a joke involving TV channels later becomes a source for code names. In painting RAW and ISI they don’t bring in the jingoistic colour. And casting actors like Girish Karnad and Ranvir Shorey ensures that even the cardboards have some life. It is these little touches which help us take leaps of faith when “escape” velocity takes this vehicle out of realistic space.

Visually appetising, Kabir’s films don’t make big statements. They don’t dare to test the mind either. At best they skim the surface of the issues they claim to talk about. In New York it was the watered down version of terrorism. Here amid the entire globe-trotting, Kabir has a pacifist agenda. What happens when you fall in love with the “other” without knowing its identity ….And does a secret agent have the right to fall in love with anybody other than the nation?

Of late you don’t associate style with Salman and you don’t expect anything but chic from Katrina. Perhaps that’s why the two don’t pair together on screen. In an example of clever writing, Kabir ensures the story blends each other’s strengths and weakness in a way that the audience gets engaged to the charming couple. The ghost of Yuvraaj is exorcised and it is their effervescent candour and canoodling that keep the crucial middle portion merry.

After a string of strident performances, Salman is eager to show stripes that we no longer associate with him. After a long time one gets to see a glimpse of impish traits that won him his female fan following. There is an inherent wry wit in his character that gels with his real life persona. He makes fun of his job and name and Zoya takes pot shots at his age. Even that clichéd star watching has some easy humour.

Kabir has characterised Zoya in a way that gives Katrina a chance to display her natural beauty. And believe me, she is as breathtaking as some of the exotic locales where the film is shot. Shedding a few layers of plasticity, she is very much the girl to die for, the beloved who can make you cheat your nation. She also gets the opportunity to use those long legs to kick and leap and action choreographers Markos Rounthwaite and Conrad E Palmisano ensure that it comes across as an authentic mix of aesthetics and endurance. The set pieces are truly spectacular and are not just about brute force. The intercutting between actors and their body doubles is smart. So is the cinematography by Aseem Mishra.

Not a great piece of cinema, but the Tiger has enough wit and will to ensnare happy points from the discerning as well as diehard fans.