The Whistleblower Chronicle

It’s a pity that Tigers, a film by Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (he won for the 2001 film No Man’s Land, the year Lagaan was also a nominee), did not get a wide theatrical release in India, and went straight to a streaming platform, where, hopefully, it will be seen by those who look for meaningful content.

Emraan Hashmi, going against his serial-kisser image, plays a man with a conscience and courage of conviction, never mind the suffering he and his family has to go through. The film took years to make, but it is a story that needs to be told—the fight by a salesman called Syed Aamir Raza against an unscrupulous multi-national company (MNC).

His fictional version, Ayan (Hashmi), works as a salesman with a Pakistani pharmaceutical company, but finds the going tough because doctors prescribe, and medical stores sell, more expensive products manufactured by MNCs. On the advice of his new bride Zainab (Geetanjai Thapa), he applies for the job of a salesman with a large MNC, even though he does not have the required educational qualifications. The local boss of the company, Bilal (Adil Hussain) is impressed by Ayan’s confidence (“If you don’t hire me, you are stupid man,” he tells his would-be boss) and gives him the job selling baby milk formula for the international giant, Lasta (the real name of the company could not be used for obvious reasons, but it is not difficult to guess which one it is).

Ayan is a smooth talker, but he is also given a budget to bribe doctors and medical stores to push company’s product. He makes brisk progress, does well enough to please his boss and move up the social ladder. Then Faiz (Satyadeep Mishra), a young doctor he had befriended, returns after training from Karachi, and informs Ayan—who is now a father himself—that babies are dying of diarrhoea and malnutrition by using his company’s product.  Poor women think that it is better to give babies formula rather than breast-feeding, but because they use contaminated water, and dilute the costly milk substitute, babies are dying in large numbers. The company does not hold itself responsible for the ignorance of the mothers.

However, Ayan is shocked enough to quit the job, and with the encouragement of his wife and father (Vinod Nagpal), decides to take on Lasta and complain to the World Health Organisation. The result is harassment, threats and ostracism by the very medical professionals who accepted bribes and gifts from Ayan. He is threatened and thrown into jail by a top army doctor as Bilal sits there glowering. Obviously, the company has connections to the top. (The title comes from the instruction by a supervisor for the salesmen to growl like tigers, meaning sell aggressively.)

Faiz stands by him, and involves an NGO run by Maggie (Maryam D’Abo) to help Ayan in his fight. He sends his family to their village for safety and starts to shoot for a documentary that will expose Lasta.  He is taken to Germany and assured by the filmmakers that he will return a hero. But film is caught up in legal tangles, and a mistake made by Ayan (which he corrected immediately) derails the project.  It is not clear why, but Ayan is unable to return home for seven years, and eventually settles in Toronto, where he drives a cab.

Tanovic has made an honest film with Emraam Hashmi portraying Ayan with an appealing mix of innocence and obstinacy—a man who believes he can make a difference. Unlike other whistleblower stories (like Erin Brockovich, for instance), this one has no glamour and very little grandstanding—Ayan is just an ordinary man who wants to do the right thing; the outsiders he depends on to help him, throw him under a bus.

The company responsible for the deaths of thousands of infants suffered no dent to its image—its baby products are still being sold with no warning about correct usage to poor or illiterate women. But for those who care, Raza/Ayan is a hero.