“Do I have to do all the work?” says an exasperated Minni (Deepika Padukone) when Patty (Hrithik Roshan) is stubbornly unwilling to do anything more than cast the odd smouldering, green-eyed glance in her direction. In Fighter, romance is very low on director Siddharth Anand’s list of priorities. The film ends with a kiss, but one that is criminally insipid considering the actors doing the kissing. Fighter is proof that it takes a lot more than putting two beautiful people in a frame for there to be chemistry — a detail you’d expect in Anand’s film considering he began his career with family dramas and romantic comedies.
As first a writer and then director, Anand quickly developed a recognisable formula of tropes to articulate pining and lusting among his characters. A prosaic ‘love at first sight’; a facetious deception of some kind; an opulent, anchored focus on a man’s naked upper-body; slow-mo, close-up shots of the woman's conventionally beckoning, jazzed-up face. The man’s neat infatuation with the woman in the first half, and his pragmatic mulling over in the second half; the woman’s deliberative dip into love, and then her itching clarity in the same time frame. Invariably rooted in the male perspective but revelling in strong-minded women, the courting is often sputtering with both sexual yearning and platonic reverences.
In Salaam Namaste (2005), which marked Anand’s directorial debut, Nick (Saif Ali Khan) and Ambar (Preity Zinta) manage to live out the classic enemies-to-lovers trope as well as the less conventional lets-move-in-together-immediately trope in a matter of days. The film was a rip in the mainstream Hindi rom-com ecosystem — it showed a couple in a live-in relationship and and how they were negotiating a romance amidst an accidental pregnancy.
While Ambar is shown to be cocky and self-assured throughout the length of the film, she is comparatively coy when it comes to sexual desire. The intensity of her urge is undeniable, but there is a gendered layer to Anand’s characterisation. Ambar’s initial reluctance and mulling over the repercussions of being with Nick give her a virtuosity that Nick doesn’t need to secure the audience’s approval. Still, even though Ambar scrutinises her own actions in a way that Nick doesn’t, the film doesn’t indict her for her sexual desire or its brazen execution.
When they sleep together for the first time, Nick and Ambar have just started living together. Ambar is tending to Nick when he lives up to his name and nicks himself as he is shaving. He is lying on the bed, stressing about the sight of blood and confessing to an anxiety around doctors. She tells him to imagine her wrapped in nothing but a towel, assuming that the induced horniness can work as a nifty distraction. When she is done tending to his shaving cut, Nick suggests the two act on the imagination she had just nudged him towards. It’s a change of gear from Nick, who had made it clear that his suggestion of them living together wasn’t simply a shortcut to satisfying sexual impulses. His suggestion that the two have sex is gentle and the physicality of the scene emphasises how he’s not the one in a controlling position. Anand places Nick on the bed, under a bedsheet, with Ambar hovering over him. Ambar is seen contemplating through this action — we can assume this is intended to signal her virtuosity — but surrenders to her desire for him at his earnest prodding.
Anand has been deceptively traditional with his romances and what stays buoyant in them are the progressive cuts in a conservative frame — a child out of a wedlock (Salaam Namaste), a woman astutely interrogating if marriage can compromise her lifestyle as well as economic independence (Bachna Ae Haseeno), the woman who doesn’t need saving and holds her own next to a super-spy (Pathaan), a woman chugging water as a man’s body is flagrantly exhibited for ogling (Bang Bang). Anand was a writer for Hum Tum (2004), Yash Raj Films’ will-they-won’t-they romantic-comedy that sets up a womaniser against an uptight woman, in which the two bicker and spout brazenly gendered promulgations, only to relinquish to the come-hither pull of the other. In Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), we keep up with the story of a casanova who is on an apology spree for his past lovers after being left desolate when a girlfriend, who is sceptical of marriage as an institution, rejects his proposal.
The romance and action genres came together in Bang Bang (2014), which showed an introverted bank receptionist being drawn into espionage-related, international dilly-dallying by a sumptuous looking man. Bang Bang’s straight-and-narrow heroine Harleen (Katrina Kaif) allows disruption into her life when she lets Rajveer (Roshan) convince her she’ll be safe with him even though he is embroiled in criminal activity. It has been a while since Harleen has known spark in her monotonous job and non-existent love life in Shimla, and she finds herself pulled into an international relations debacle when she realises the man she went on a date with, Rajveer, is a polished thief.
At one point in the film, the two are scheming in Prague as the Indian government, an organised criminal network and the British government are searching for the duo. In an alley, their two bodies are pressed against each other as they want to keep their individual silhouettes obscured from the police officials who are lurking in the same vicinity. Harleen coyly, but hypocritically chides Rajveer for considering that the two, in the moment, could kiss. She softly divulges that she has accumulated experience on the subject, and had shared a peck or two in the distant past. To prove a point, she briskly plants a fleeting kiss on his lips. Rajveer then informs Harleen that kisses have the potential to be longer, lingering and can be suffused with erotic passion — and of course, he offers her a practical demonstration of this.
Anand offers lavish space for the woman to lust in his movies, and Bang Bang is riddled with montages of Harleen making eyes at Rajveer’s abs-riddled physique which he offers up for her gaze ever so often. She flits between processing the massive stakes of Rajveer’s mission and how she has been romantically assimilated into it, and his teasing upper body which punctures the linearity of this contemplation. When Rajveer offers Harleen a real way to kiss, it is easy to read into the sexist implication — of course the man is more experienced than the woman — but Anand also lets us know Harleen is an introvert who has found it difficult to wriggle out of her comfort zones. While conforming to a more traditional idea of sexual intimacy, Bang Bang also neatly exists along with an introverts’ fantasy of getting that necessary nudge to act on one’s yearning.
If Ambar and Harleen were initially bashful about their bubbling sexual expression, Rubai (Deepika Padukone) offers an electric contrast. Anand’s post Bang Bang films’ female leads are undaunted by their sexual needs and the most seductive example of this is in Pathaan where the coy female lead is replaced by a woman who is initially the one who dominates the relationship. Although he does eventually claim the spotlight for himself, in the early chapters of their relationship, Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan) is willing to follow Rubai’s lead (quite literally) even if this leads him right into the villainous Jim’s lair.
As well-matched couples go, Rubai turns the tables on the notion of the demure heroine with her stylish wardrobe that highlights just how sensual (and strong) she is in purely physical terms, and Khan, in contrast, seduces not with his physique but with his personality — his trademark vulnerability and dignifying gaze. Both Rubai, a Pakistani spy, and Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan), who is a part of the Indian intelligence, agree the two need to covertly collude to fend off the evil Jim (John Abraham). They are sharing a tree-coloured hotel room in Russia with luxury fittings and an appropriate window-view of the building they want to target for their clandestine mission.
At night, we have Rubai strip down to flaunt a frilly, sexy black bra with an eye on Pathaan’s goggle. She, then, sensuously places herself on the bed and asks for his assistance with her wound — a wink is implicit here. Pathaan obliges. They open up to one another, with him telling her how he got the name he’s adopted for himself. The tenderness of Rubai’s gaze sits comfortably with the fiery chemistry that the two agents share. We’ve already seen that they match one another skill for skill, thanks to the elegantly-choreographed action sequences earlier in Pathaan. Now, the mischief and playful quality of their flirting gives way to something more passionate.
Disappointingly, Minni and Patty get no such moments. The weightier affair of how seduction can slide from yearning to a gripping tug-and-pull of desire is reduced to a more superficial lathering of glamour in Fighter. Lurking under its testosterone-fuelled drama is the potential of a workplace romance in which two colleagues navigate a way through a friendship that is laden with temptation and the taboos of dating while working in a high-risk job. Sadly, Fighter had no time or space for these ‘softer’ angles and even less inclination to see Minni as anything more than a prop in Patty’s story. Romance and the articulation of desire might have strayed from the central plot, but like in so many of Anand’s past films, the distraction had the potential to add layers to the Fighter’s formulaic flatness.