A minute into Fighter and we already have an inshallah, an Alhamdulillah and a jihad (for Kashmir). There are more janaabs uttered in this film than in Pakeezah. A dreaded Pakistani pilot wears more kohl than Deepika Padukone has in her last three films. A Pakistani general reminisces about the time they “brought terror to the valleys of Kashmir” and admits “Jaesh is better than us, they get the job done”. The Indian defence minister says, “Sometimes the path to justice is revenge.”
So this is what a Siddharth Anand film looks like without the restraining hand of YRF. I say this with massive caveats. Pakistan is a ready and mostly caricatured villain in the YRF Spyverse. But the ongoing series has given us Zoya and Rubai, patriotic Pakistani spies as leads in Hindi action films. Tiger 3 ends with Pakistani schoolkids playing the Indian national anthem—a rather meaningless gesture, but a gesture nonetheless. Fighter, produced by Anand’s Marflix and Viacom18, has no use for such liberal weakness. Pakistani military, ISI, Jaesh, Kashmiris—they’re all the same, unruly offspring waiting to be taught a lesson by their baap, India.
At an air force base in Srinagar, a team of skilled fliers assembles. Padukone, playing chopper pilot Minal Rathore (‘Mini’), gets a proper guitars-shades-and-slomo Siddharth Anand entry. So does Hrithik Roshan’s Shamsher Pathania (‘Patty’) a minute later, though this one’s too much like Kabir’s walk across the tarmac in War and is missing a smitten Tiger Shroff. The team—which includes Bash (Akshay Oberoi), Taj (Karan Singh Grover) and a few others—is briefed by captain Rakesh ‘Rocky’ Jaisingh (Anil Kapoor), who’s visibly frosty towards Patty. Mini, though, is immediately drawn to the star pilot—you might say he takes her breath away.
Funny you should ask, yes, there’s a lot of Top Gun in Fighter. Patty is a cocksure flier whose arrogance and propensity for risk-taking keeps getting him in trouble. If this isn’t enough, he’s haunted by the death of a fellow pilot (there’s a related subplot from Maverick thrown in, rather half-heartedly). But there’s one big difference. In both Top Gun and Maverick, the identity of the enemy is vague to the point of abstraction. The only identified adversary is Maverick's own demons.
There’s no way a Hindi film in 2024 is going to have an abstract enemy. Even so, I was struck by the film’s demonic framing of Pakistan and the trash-talk that stands in for India's foreign policy. “Unhe dikhaana padega baap kaun hai (we’ll show them who daddy is),” the prime minister (or so it appears) says. “Maalik hum hain!” Patty shouts mid-fight, referring to Kashmir. His laughable threat of ‘IOP’—Indian Occupied Pakistan—immediately after deflects from the ugliness of saying India is Kashmir’s maalik, owner.
If I could put all this aside, I’d tell you that Fighter intermittently resembles a Siddharth Anand film in that it’s nifty-looking and fluidly sexy and somewhat daffy. Roshan looks fine in uniform and his peacocking is amusing, if overdone. Sanchit and Ankit Balhara’s score is as earwormy as their work on Pathaan. The aerial combat is a lot better than I expected (Pathaan was awful in the air), though the memory of Maverick is likely still too fresh to escape comparison. But Anand is missing Sridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala, his YRF writing partners (Ramon Chibb, Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal are the writers here). It’s not just the sledgehammer jingoism, you feel Raghavan and Tyrewala’s loss in the quieter moments too, like when Patty and Mini are flirting in his kitchen and the witless dialogue leaves the actors stranded. Or Mini meeting her estranged parents, a scene so schmaltzy even Padukone’s otherworldly crying abilities can’t salvage it.
There are plugs for Zomato and Asian Paints but what’s really being advertised is the Indian Air Force, both as a place of clubby good cheer and a chance to be the only kind of Indian worthy of absolute respect. I was amused to see thanks extended not only to the ministry of defence, the air force and a plethora of military personnel but even to the defence ministry’s review committee, through which all films made on the armed forces must pass. Let’s assume all Indian soldiers are supremely patriotic and self-sacrificing and beacons of humanity. Can we save some time in future films and put all this as a statutory warning whenever they’re on screen?
Like all Hindi war films made after 2019, Fighter is beholden to Uri: The Surgical Strike. But there’s an interesting tonal change. Aditya Dhar’s film was deadly serious, to the extent that it made the army seem like a taxing and gloomy profession. The lines that carried an electric charge back then are, after years of imitation, less startling now. “How’s the josh?” becomes a joke over dinner in Fighter. “Ghar mein ghus ke maarenge” is also made fun of—by Pakistani terrorists. The rhetoric of eight years ago becomes the tagline of five years ago becomes the punchline of today.
Uri was released a few months before the 2019 general elections. It stressed the role of the BJP government, at the centre in 2016, in carrying out the retaliatory attacks in Uri. Fighter has a similar line about how, in the last 50 years, no government (before Modi's) had given a fitting response to Pakistan. But apart from this, the establishment is curiously absent in what is unquestionably an establishment film. As another election looms, maybe that’s the big change from five years ago. Why bother claiming victories everyone already assumes are yours?