Director: Siddharth Anand
Writers: Ramon Chibb, Siddharth Anand, Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Deepika Padukone, Anil Kapoor, Karan Singh Grover, Akshay Oberoi, Rishabh Sahwney
Duration: 166 minutes
Available in: Theatres
It’s Tom Cruise’s world and Fighter (2024) is just crawling in it. Director Siddharth Anand’s latest adapts everything Cruise’s Top Gun franchise is famous for – pulsating action, hyper-masculinity, homoeroticism, narrative swag, warmongering – and makes it inferior. The action is good, but not good enough to distract from the film’s political demons; the urgency of aerial combat is often punctured by elaborate ‘dialogue-baazi’ from the cockpit. The hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism have Hrithik Roshan to lean on. But the sexual tension he shares with the air plays second fiddle to the textual tension between this film and the India it unfolds in. The narrative swag is compromised by the film’s timing. Its sense of fiction is suspended between the writing of history and the rewriting of it – the Balakot airstrike of 2019 is given the Uri: The Surgical Strike treatment, where two sides of the coin are ‘India wins’ and ‘Pakistan loses’ (the third side is ‘Pakistan loses again’). The warmongering, too, keeps contradicting itself. The film insists that its battle is with nationless terrorists and not with the Pakistani people, but threats that use phrases like “India-occupied Pakistan” prove that this distinction is flimsy at best.
Fighter stars Roshan as squadron leader Shamsher “Patty” Pathania, a top Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot who turns narcissism into a Bollywood aesthetic. This man is no vegetarian patty. He loves showboating, much to the chagrin of his commanding officer Rakesh “Rocky” Jaisingh (Anil Kapoor). He fails training exercises like a maverick who – as Rocky perceptively explains – is so gifted that he tends to become a danger in a team of mere mortals. He also struts around the base with a mysterious smirk, like most handsome heroes with a tragic past do. We know this because helicopter pro Minal “Minni” Rathore (Deepika Padukone) is curious about him. Fortunately for her, every other aviator on the team – including Taj (Karan Singh Grover) and Bash (Akshay Oberoi) – offers information on the urban legend that is Patty. They speak about him like he’s not there. They think about him like he’s everywhere. You know the drill.
Things are school-picnic-level happy until the film stays in this rapport-building zone. They spend the night at Patty’s place, bonding with his dad, stopping short of having a pajama pa(r)tty. You can tell who’s going to suffer or become the story’s Abhinandan Varthaman (the Indian fighter pilot held captive in Pakistan after going down in a dogfight in 2019) from the amount of smiles and jokes they get. If someone pours Patty a drink, you know he’s a goner. Once a convoy of CRPF buses is attacked in Pulwama, Fighter launches into dramatized orbit. The villain is a Jaish-e-Mohammed militant named Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sahwney), a man so evil that at one point he claims to have burnt the tri-colour while sawing an Indian pilot into pieces. It is imperative that he is bad enough for Patty and his gang to justify their “victory is more important than rules” ways. It is also imperative that Azhar becomes a cultural surrogate for Pakistan-but-not-fully-Pakistan.
The persecution complex in Fighter is as subtle as the product placement. One feels particularly sorry for Asian Paints, which appears twice in the background of a terrorist scheming to kill. I refuse to read deeper into that allegory. Patty’s rival in the sky is a kohl-eyed Pakistan fighter pilot codenamed Red Nose, who always seems to have enough time to verbally engage with Patty while attempting multiple missile locks. Their banter stops short of becoming its own ‘Mauka Mauka’ cricket ad. Siddharth Anand has a knack for composing action that treads the line between pulpy and cool. The pre-interval aerial jousts are nicely choreographed – there’s some decent cockpit eye-acting by Roshan here – but the film’s commitment to rah-rahing is so strong that a lot of the combat descends into chaos by the end. It’s almost like the movie is trying to be unclear about the events it chooses to remodel. The words are designed to be the set pieces, because the violence isn’t really sure of what to say. Most of the dialogue is off-putting, more so when Pakistan comes into play. A scene featuring an Indian aviator (Sharib Hashmi, in an unnecessary cameo) pretending to be a lost Russian commercial pilot on radio is the icing on this tasteless cake.
Another problem with a protagonist like Patty is that he often ends up trivializing the IAF as well as the concept of patriotism. The screenplay aims to deify him so hard that it presents him as an entitled loose cannon who treats the Srinagar base like his backyard. The second half follows a suspended Patty around like a lovesick puppy, relegating the stand-off between two countries and the consequences of his actions to a footnote. His redemption arc is so crowded – he must win over Rocky, Minni, India, a captive’s wife, the audience, a cat (not really) – that the film simply lets him bulldoze his way back into the fold.
At one point, Patty lovingly chastises a middle-aged couple at the airport for disowning their ambitious daughter; they tearfully let him speak and walk away, as if it’s the most natural interaction in the world. Patty disobeys almost every order there is, but it’s like his bosses just cannot resist the sight of a man who looks like the hero from Lakshya (2004). As for the performances, Roshan initially provides glimpses of the salt-and-pepper zaddy from War (2019), but the social context of the film pummels his charisma into submission. Patty has a lot of tears to shed, but Hrithik Roshan crying is not the same as Shah Rukh Khan crying. Speaking of great criers, Deepika Padukone is fine in the 2.5 moments Minni is afforded – her role is almost invisible for a film that treats the supporting cast as token faces (the woman, the Good Muslim, the best friend, the goofy Sikh man).
It can be argued that movies like Pathaan (2023), War (2019) and Jawan (2023) are equally silly in terms of plausibility or plot. But those are constructed as superstar vehicles – the movie remains in the meta service of the men on screen. Fighter doesn’t allow humans or machines to shine because India is supposed to be its bombastic superstar; India is its blurring of fact, fiction and everything in between. When Patty thrashes up the baddie, his agility is not in focus because his sentences are: An entire monologue about the meaning of ‘Jai Hind’ is dished out in between punches. There is no scope for the pleasures of mass or masala. There is hardly any scope for Siddharth Anand’s stylisms (that electronic background score; those slow-mo entry shots) to breathe. While this lack of individualism fits into the theme of the film, it doesn’t make for a great viewing experience.
It’s of course easy to say things like: Separate the optics from the movie and judge the ‘craft’ only. But that’s reductive to the very art of film-making – it’s like asking a viewer to admire a film for its imagery by muting the sound. It’s like asking a citizen to leave their identity – not their brains – at home. For better or worse, the very existence of action movies these days is loaded. Praising Fighter for its technical bravado is akin to dismissing Fighter for its combative voice. Sadly, such movies thrive on the diplomacy of counter-arguments. You can’t call it propaganda because it is loosely inspired by real events. You can’t call it inaccurate because the disclaimer says it’s a work of fiction. You can’t call it mediocre because it’s a tribute. You can’t call it post-truth because it’s Indian. You can’t even call it entertaining because war is no laughing matter. What’s left, then, is a film called Fighter that’s about South Asian people who fight in the skies.