A rip-off of Top Gun is, perhaps, not a generous reading of Fighter (2024) — it goes further in its geopolitical acid, expressing love as both a back-story and an arc, replacing character depth with chanting — but you cannot dismiss how much of Joseph Kosinski’s film Fighter taps into. The camaraderie between the members, for example, which since they are not by a beachside, is full of a muffled and clothed ruffling around, without joy or sass, neither sex nor antagonism. The film files its characters into neat categories of good and bad, no ego within the team, no tension, only reverence or intrigue.
The easiest thing in the world is to blame someone. Rakesh Jai “Rocky” Singh (Anil Kapoor), the group captain of an elite team of the Indian Air Force, repentantly says something to this effect to Shamsher “Patty” Pathania (Hrithik Roshan), a hero who we are told is a fighter rather than a pilot. This exchange takes place in the final moments of Fighter. Throughout the almost-three-hour film, there is an icy resentment that Rocky directs at Patty — Rocky blames him and his sole-man-standing, force-of-gale heroism for the loss of life in previous operations. To blame Patty is to blinker oneself from seeing his humanity, his compulsions; and this Rocky finally understands as Fighter comes to a close.
Does the film itself, however, have the maturity to contemplate over what you are hollowing out when you are so easy to blame someone, condemn them to villainy?
From War to Fighter
There is a moral rot at the centre of Fighter. Anand’s previous two stabs at action, War (2019) and Pathaan (2023), both Yash Raj Films productions, were different. They framed patriotism as something that emerged out of duty, love, and joy. In War, while explaining the idea of sportsmanship to a young girl, Kabir (Roshan) says, “Bhaago, daudo, khelo, lado, sab kuch. Par ek baar match khatam ho jaaye toh yeh mat socho ke tum haare ya jeete. Apne aap se yeh pucho, did I give it my very best or not?” Run around, play around, fight, do it all. But once the match is over, don’t wallow over if you won or lost. Ask yourself, instead, if you gave it your best or not?
The girl asks him, rather exasperated by this trite thought, what would happen if everyone thought like this. Kabir replies, “Toh duniya mein kam dukhi log honge (there will be fewer wretched people).”
Fighter is a story of those wretched people — those fixated on victory because “jang mein sirf haar ya jeet hoti hai (there is only triumph or defeat in war).” The only way they can rationalise chest-thumping violence is by reducing the opponent to a gleaming, kohl-eyed enemy. As Patty notes in a pivotal scene, the only path to justice is revenge. And so, the language of love for the nation is inflected by a serrated vengeance instead.
A Body Without Personhood
Terrorists, based out of and with the support of Pakistan, under Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sawhney)— hollow cheeks, jutting lips, blood pooling in one eye — have bombed a security convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir. The film is not interested in why he’s drawn to terrorism, giving him a variation of the unfair, cold shoulder that Rocky metes out to Patty — to not give him the dignity of personhood.
The bulk of Fighter’s plot is a retaliation to a bomb blast that resembles what happened in Pulwama in 2019, a reimagining that changes the narrative of the infamous Balakot airstrikes. Ignoring the disputed facts, Fighter instead leans into a fragile tale of steadfast heroism in Rocky’s team — including Karan Singh Grover as court jester Squadron Leader Sartaj “Taj” Gill, and Akshay Oberoi as the good Muslim, Squadron Leader Basheer “Bash” Khan. I wonder, do we have the gumption to have a Muslim character in Hindi cinema without the strange insecurity of needing to immediately slot them into pro and anti-India?
Then, to express the film’s heroism as indestructible, lubricious, Roshan is introduced first through an audacious stunt and then as shirtless; a steely affect in his abdomen, his personality, and his face. This obvious eros, an undeniable pleasure, is required to make palatable, even alluring, that wretchedness; almost to mask its stench, to burnish its sandpapered surface, glint it with some taut skin.
This airing of the body, however, is unlike War, where Roshan played a character whose opaque personality was clothed throughout, the bulging biceps hinting at what lies below the fluttering cloth clinging to his muscled skin. In Fighter, however, this inconspicuous sex appeal is given, instead, to Azhar, whose granite biceps might be the most erotic enticement about the film.
From War to Fighter
In War, Roshan is allowed to bumble around, be thrown about by the terrorist, and even in one scene, needing the help of his sidekick to pummel this block of muscle to dust. In grey hair, he played his age, and his opacity felt weather-worn. In Fighter his hair is mud brown, his eyes hazel, there is a sense of a hero having aged out of youth, but not too much. His opacity is more of a pompous posture. His confidence often curdles into arrogance — as his on-the-side sidekick in this film, Minal “Minni” Rathore (Deepika Padukone) notes when she first meets him. The film refuses to make this distinction, however, never allowing us to be exasperated by his steadfast smirking strides. Even Minni, who makes this initial distinction, eventually falls under his sway, mooning over him. It is a banal hero worship, where his masculinity is never allowed to falter, to give space to anything but himself. She, meanwhile, has little to do other than gaze at the hero and step aside when it’s time for heroics.
Strange, to see this monotony coming from Anand whose Pathaan let the woman yank the man out of the spotlight, whose War was made tender with a homoerotic wink.
The world imagined by director Siddharth Anand, riddled with explosions, is frictionless and flat. There is no sense of space. Neither is there a sense of speed, of tension. Anand has, in his filmmaking, mistaken a chaotic edit for slick torque, the fluttering of the eyes mistaken for the skipped beat of the heart.
The way fighter jets hewed space in Top Gun — for example, the sheer velocity with which it shudders the roof of a building and the hair of people standing underneath — that crumpling of space-time is something we cannot locate in Fighter. When characters are suspended from helicopters, their hair looks licked by a wintry Mumbai gust, instead. When they are navigating heavy jets, there is no sense of sweat, of gravity, no headrush, no labor, no flexed veins. What we get, instead, is polish. But of what use is polish if it is glazed over a surface so cracked?