One look at director Siddharth Anand’s filmography informs you of his love for Hollywood genre movies. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Fighter, an aviation-action drama, is drizzled with references to Top Gun (1986) and its recent and more popular sequel, Top Gun: Maverick (2022). In fact, Anand’s entire filmography may be encapsulated as a transposition of Western influences on an Indian substrate. When his movies do work, it is because the Indian sensibilities of over-emphasizing dramatic elements, nationalistic ideals and bombastic dialogues gel well enough with the slick action set-pieces and the pulpy plot.
Fighter follows the story of top air force aviators, termed the ‘Air Dragons’, led by Group Captain Rakesh Jai ‘Rocky’ Singh (Anil Kapoor), who are called into action to respond against the devastating Pulwama Attack of 2019. It is perhaps a uniquely Indian sensibility to exploit real-life tragedies as plot developments or inciting incidents and craft a hard-core commercial narrative as a result. The screenplay of the movie is designed to introduce all the supporting characters first before making way for the heroic entry of Shamsher ‘Patty’ Pathania (Hrithik Roshan). Patty is a ‘maverick’, who is prone to flying his fighter jet in a reversal pattern and using dangerous stunts to blindside the opponent. The other characters often proclaim that he is the ‘best pilot’ of the squadron, but his seniors also admit that being the best has its disadvantages, as one is unable to see one’s own flaws within.
The key element of Fighter thus, for better or worse, is this balancing act – having predictable backstories and equally predictable plots; the good Muslim v/s the bad Muslim; incorporating the Kashmir conflict, strained India-Pakistan relations and the typical salutations and flowery language (“Janab”, “Inteqam”) reserved for the Pakistani characters by Bollywood screenwriters. The aggressive nationalism sprinkled in the story, especially towards the final act, is peppered with dialogues like “POK means Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir. Occupy Tumne Kiya Hai, Malik Hum Nain“, or the Prime Minister of the country stating that ‘they’ should be taught a lesson – to prove “Baap Kaun Hai!”.
But Fighter also has a narrative juxtaposing a larger external conflict with the internal conflicts of the three central characters and granting closure for all of them. Patty might feel like a character inspired by Tom Cruise’s Maverick, but his character is allowed to realize that the confidence and attitude he carries himself with are dangerously teetering towards arrogance. His actions, while heroic, don’t excuse him from consequences and punishment. As a result, the movie also spends a surprising amount of real estate on Patty’s character arc. Deepika Padukone’s Minni, too, has her own arc – proving to her parents that gender shouldn’t be a barrier to achieving her dream of being in the Air Force. And lastly, Anil Kapoor’s Rocky has a strained relationship with Roshan’s Patty, connecting to Patty’s troubled past. Deviations such as these within a predictable narrative do make for an intriguing experience.
What does work especially well in the movie are the action set-pieces. The CGI, unlike Anand’s last outing, Pathaan (2023), has significantly improved and thus aerial dogfights, when depicted with the speed and dexterity of these fighter jets, look legitimate. It is when the movie stops to luxuriate and lingers on the CGI-developed planes showing off its aerial stunts that the artifice becomes more apparent. The hand-to-hand action sequences towards the final act, however, feel over-edited with far too many fast cuts for their own good.
In an effort to be both a masala entertainer with a larger-than-life hero as well as a character-focused narrative, Fighter becomes bloated. It doesn’t help that the songs don’t leave an impact. The party song, Sher Khul Gaye, is simply inserted into the film without any preconceived development. What truly hurts the film with regards to its pacing is the romantic chemistry ‘supposedly’ developing between Patty and Minni. Roshan and Padukone have no chemistry on screen, and thus the movie’s insistence on teasing the characters’ emotional climax doesn’t register. Rishabh Sawhney, as the central villain in the narrative, has a physical presence, but the dialogues towards the end ultimately render him little more than a moustache-twirling villain.
Fighter is the quintessential commercial blockbuster beholden to the current climate and yet doesn’t want to devolve entirely into the sensibilities of truly aggressive hyper-nationalism. The tenuous balance of being a pulpy, visceral entertainer and yet a character-focused drama seems a good proposition on paper. On-screen, the effort to maintain that balance is evident, but does not translate into a fully engaging movie-watching experience. At the very least, Fighter works as a recruitment video for the Indian Air Force, like Top Gun had been for the US Navy.
Hindi, Action, Drama, Color