Not many boxing fans have heard of Pardeep Singh Nagra. The Canadian fighter was banned from amateur boxing for refusing to violate his Sikh religious beliefs. His struggles are captured in the new biopic Tiger, costarring Prem Singh and former boxer Mickey Rourke.
Nagra (Prem Singh) is introduced to the audience as a man frustrated with the world. His anger got him disqualified from competing for the US men’s soccer team. He discovers a boxing gym run by Frank Donavan (Mickey Rourke), your cliché washed-up boxer turned gym owner (with an un-cliché adorable dog always in his arms, one of Rourke’s real-life dogs). Predictably, Frank decides to train Pardeep, who forms a rivalry with another of Frank’s students, Brian Doyle (Michael Pugliese).
Pardeep quickly turns into a formidable boxer. His main opponent is the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), which bars him from competing due to his beard, which religious Sikhs are not allowed to shave, for violating the ABC rules. Thus, Pardeep must take his fight from the ring to the courtroom, with the help of his lawyer Charlotte (Janel Parrish). They argue that banning a person from participating in an organization for refusing to disobey their religious beliefs is a violation of human rights.
In the boxing world and beyond, Pardeep faces discrimination. He is continually subject to verbal abuse and threatened by strangers for his beard and turban. In private, this causes Pardeep great anger and self-doubt. Prem Singh does a good job of portraying the personal conflict that his character feels. It’s also refreshing that the film doesn’t turn its protagonist into a saint: oftentimes, he lets his anger get the better of him, which causes further complications. This makes Pardeep a relatable figure for the audience.
Tiger is overall a decent film, with an inspiring story and a thrilling final fight scene. However, it is also rife with clichés, undeveloped characters and very predictable plot twists, including a love triangle that feels forced. It’s also disappointing that the film not only changed Pardeep’s nationality from Canadian to America, but literally wrapped the film in American flags and references to American truisms like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It also feels like the film’s portrayal of virulent anti-Sikh bigotry is a bit anachronistic, as the events portrayed in the film occurred before 9/11, when Islamaphobia (and by extension, Sikh-phobia) exploded in the Western world. Doubtlessly, Sikhs faced some discrimination before 9/11, but I doubt if it was common for people to throw beer cans at and pick fights with Sikhs prior to “The War on Terror.”
It’s refreshing to see a Western film about a devotee of the world’s 5th largest religion, but I wish the film had played more with the juxtaposition between a short-tempered man who becomes a semi-professional fighter and the Sikh faith, which is famous for its emphasis on nonviolence.
There are a few scenes filmed inside a gurdwara, but a casual viewer won’t walk away knowing much more about Sikhism than they did before. Hopefully, the film will inspire people to learn more about the amazing people and culture of Punjab, the heartland of Sikhism.