Tigers and global corporate criminality: “We’ve got a really bad system”

This is the sixth and final part in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto film festival (September 4-14). Part 1 was posted September 18, Part 2 on September 24Part 3 on September 26, Part 4 on October 2 and Part 5on October 10.

Bosnian-born director Danis Tanović is proving to be one of the more interesting and compassionate filmmakers currently at work. His last three films, Cirkus Columbia (2009), An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker(2010) now, Tigers, have all looked at present conditions with honesty and some degree of social insight.

The new film focuses on an ongoing scandal that stretches back at least four decades, the marketing of infant formula to mothers in poor countries, which has caused untold suffering and death. In addition to the fact that breastfeeding is healthier for infants, in countries where clean water is not available, mixing polluted water with milk substitutes produces grave risks.

A boycott was launched against the Swiss-based giant, Nestlé, in 1977 over the issue. While the World Health Organisation introduced an International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes in 1981, companies systematically violate its provisions, according to critics.

A 2013 report by Save the Children argues that “95 babies could be saved every hour, or 830,000 a year, if new mothers across the world breastfed immediately after giving birth.” (Sydney Morning Herald) A host of large corporations, including Nestlé, Danone, Mead Johnson, Abbott, Friso and Enfamil, are accused of corrupt marketing practices, including bribing health workers and showering mothers themselves with gifts as a means of inducing them to use the various firms’ products.

According to Save the Children, in Pakistan, “one-fifth of health professionals surveyed said they had received gifts from representatives of BMS [breast-milk substitute] companies.” In China, the charity’s research “found that a quarter of mothers surveyed said they had received gifts, mostly from the representatives of BMS companies” and 40 percent “of mothers interviewed said that they had been contacted directly by baby food companies’ representatives.”

There is really no ambiguity here. This is a case of enormous conglomerates preying on some of the most vulnerable layers of the global population to rake in vast profits. Baby milk formula is a $25 billion business.

The drama in Tigers, based on a true story, involves the moral and economic dilemmas of those caught up in the companies’ strategy. The film’s framework is simple enough. A producer (Danny Huston) and director (Khalid Abdalla), who want to shoot a film on the subject, and their financiers’ lawyer listen to Ayan (Emraan Hashmi), a young Pakistani former salesman, as he recounts his experiences selling infant formula. He needs to convince the filmmakers, and the lawyer in particular, that he is telling the truth, because the corporations will destroy them in court otherwise.

The story begins a dozen years earlier. Soon after his marriage to Zainab (Geetanjali), Ayan gets a job with Lasta, a multinational company. During training, the new hires are taught to growl likeand pursue business with the ruthlessness oftigers. Ayan soon uses his charm and skill to persuade doctors and others to recommend Lasta’s products. He becomes a star salesman. His dreams of wealth and comfort seem on the verge of coming true.

However, one of the doctors he has befriended, Faiz (Satyadeep Misra), returns from Karachi with alarming news. “I want to show you something,” he tells Ayan, conducting him to a ward of sick children. As the film’s notes explain, Faiz lets Ayan in on a terrible secret: “Most of his patients don’t have access to clean water. They mix infant formula in filthy water and give it to their babies, who get diarrhoea. Or because it’s so expensive they dilute it and malnutrition follows. Breastfeeding would pass on natural immunities but mothers are persuaded to use formula instead. These babies are dying because of Ayan’s work.”

Horrified, Ayan eventually quits his job and takes up what is at first a one-man campaign against Lasta’s practices. This is a very large company with a great deal to lose, and strong connections to local politicians and even the military. Ayan’s family faces ruin, his life is threatened, he lands in jail temporarily. (“Half the city is looking for you.”) He finally links up with activists opposing the infant formula racket. A television crew is shooting a documentary and takes him to Germany to promote it. It then emerges that at a moment of weakness and fear, he made a serious mistake, which endangers the project.

Tanović, as he explains in the conversation below, started working on the project in 2006, when he took a trip to Pakistan and saw for himself that babies were still dying. The original financing of a drama about the situation fell through thanks to the pressure of the corporations. Fortunately, other avenues of support opened up.

Tanović’s film is well done and sincere. The actors are effective and obviously committed. Emraan Hashmi is a major Indian film star, who has primarily appeared in light fare (although he did appear in the political thriller Shanghai[2012], which was a more serious work).

Hashmi told an interviewer that the experience of making Tigers “was completely different. It was unlike anything I had done before. Back in India, I have done over 30 films playing the protagonist in escapist mainstream fare, which I am very proud of. That has given me my identity and helped run my kitchen. But Bollywood cinema doesn’t require you to delve deep into your character and be in the moment all the time.”

The picture Tigers draws of the companies and their venal Indian shills seems accurate and done with the appropriate amount of venom. If one has a complaint it would be that Tigers is somewhat less lively and textured thanCirkus Columbia or An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, both set in a region that Tanović knows and feels in a more intimate and nuanced manner. The new film is a little formal, careful, and that probably also has something to do with the NGO-type politics at work. But Tigers is moving and worthwhile.

The individual on whom the central drama in the film is based, Syed Aamir Raza, was present at a question-and-answer session during the film festival. He now drives a taxi in Toronto. At one point, he wasn’t able to see his wife and child for seven years.