Hrithik and Deepika in Fighter
Hrithik and Deepika in Fighter

Fighter review: Hrithik, Deepika’s film blunders in mixing action, drama, patriotism

Siddharth Anand’s ‘Fighter’, starring Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone, is a fictionalised retelling of the 2019 India-Pakistan cross-border airstrikes in the Kashmir region, following the Pulwama attack.
Fighter (Hindi)(2 / 5)

Siddharth Anand’s Fighter is a fictionalised retelling of the 2019 India-Pakistan cross-border airstrikes in the Kashmir region, starting with the Pulwama attack in which a suicide bomber killed 40 CRPF personnel. The clashes came just ahead of the 2019 general elections and played a critical role in India’s social and political landscape. Now, a couple of months ahead of the 2024 general elections, Hrithik Roshan, Deepika Padukone, and rest of Fighter’s cast dramatise the events in a lively action film full of tense, fast-paced fighter jet chase sequences.

Siddharth Anand’s last two highly successful action flicks, War and Pathaan, were entirely fictionalised events involving Indian intelligence or military officers. It portrayed their inner battles and complex relationships with the agencies they serve but with a crystal clear conscience that they serve the Indian nation above all else. Fighter, on the other hand, is more a spiritual successor of Uri: The Surgical Strike than Siddharth Anand’s own works. (“How’s the gosht?” is a question actually asked at a dinner gathering.”)

The ‘fighter’ here is mainly Squadron Leader Shamsher “Patty” Pathania, the best pilot in the Indian Air Force. But the man is too dynamic to merely follow orders, too belligerent to play safe or make calm, rational decisions mid-combat. This is a problem for his Commanding Officer Rakesh “Rocky” Jaisingh (Anil Kapoor), who is always bitterly trying to rein him in.

The aviation drama in Fighter hinges on Hrithik’s captivating screen presence as much as the elaborate, incredible aerial stunts. Patty makes a spectacular entrance in a fighter plane, spinning and swerving in the air in inconceivable angles with style. When Hrithik’s Kabir in War constantly bared his ripped, bronzed muscles, a mere look of awe from Tiger Shroff’s Khalid was enough to underline the audiences’ admiration as well for his appeal. But Fighter wants to give us exaggerated, baffling reminders. Apparently, a smile and a “Please” from Hrithik can convince women to do him any favour – even give up freshly served plates of biryani at an upscale restaurant.

Hrithik, Deepika (Squadron Leader Minal “Minni” Rathore), Karan Singh Grover (Squadron Leader Sartaj “Taj” Gill), and others are part of a top IAF team called Air Dragons, who carry out the air strikes on Pakistan after Pulwama. For this, “Rocky” (the call signs get bizarre after a point – there’s also a pilot called “Nauty”) wants them to build friendships and truly become a team. This ‘camaraderie building’ is more tepid than a YouTuber’s ‘a day in my life’ vlog.

Deepika and Hrithik’s chemistry was expected to sizzle and crackle, but it pales in comparison to the tension and intensity between Kabir and Khalid in War, or Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan) and Jim (John Abraham) in Pathaan. And unlike these previous films, the bad guy in Fighter is a caricature of a terrorist, inspiring awkwardness more than fear or disgust.

Fighter’s antagonist is Azhar Akhtar from the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), seemingly based on Umar Farooq, a Jaish commander who is believed to have masterminded the Pulwama attack.

After Pulwama, the distressed Air Dragons who had bonded with the CRPF convoy in a brief moment of patriotic solidarity, carry out the Balakot airstrike to bomb an alleged terrorist training camp. Counterattacks follow from both sides, always making it clear to us that India is only responding to provocation, and only targeting terrorists. “Sometimes the path to justice is through revenge,” Patty declares at a meeting of the National Security Agency (NSA).

If War and Pathaan paid homage to the stars through meta narratives, there’s hardly space for that in Fighter. The star here is the nation, and the fandom is patriotism or jingoism, or perhaps a secret third thing. If Pathaan’s tacit endorsement of the abrogation of Article 370 was unappealing for some, here Patty tells a Jaish militant, “You’ve occupied Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), but we are the owners (maalik).” He goes on to say that if India starts to misbehave in order to retaliate with regard to terrorists, everything would turn into “IoP” – India-occupied Pakistan. The film is filled with either goading or tear-jerking patriotic lines as placeholders for insightful dialogue.

Deepika as Minni does look extremely badass flying helicopters and executing crucial missions. But outside the fighter jets, she comes across as a placid admirer of Patty who gently challenges his brashness. The daughter of an ‘Air Bharat’ employee, Minni is also made into a sentimental poster child for equal roles for women in the army, her achievements portrayed as a victory for misplaced, trite feminism. “Girls can do militarised masculinity too,” Minni seems to be saying every few minutes.

The film tries hard to draw us into the Air Dragons’ emotional lives, but the writing doesn’t succeed and ends up relying on the uniforms to evoke compassion and drama when they’re in danger. Patty has strong motives to change his aggressive ways, but the change comes rather abruptly and is accommodated too easily.

Predictably, there’s a sacrificial good Muslim added to the mix, who schools the Jaish commander on the Quran’s teachings.

While War and Pathaan seemed to make some feeble attempts to complicate the idea of unquestioning patriotism, or at least left enough space for viewers to do so themselves, Fighter has no space for grey areas, only the tricolour. The real-life inspiration is limited to the air strikes and not the allegations of lapses by Indian intelligence agencies that failed to prevent the attack.

The aerial stunt sequences are impressively shot; Sukhoi jets chase and spin around in the clouds, and it’s still easy to follow who is flying which aircraft and who or what is being bombed. But the film dramatises events from a very recent and contentious past, inflating and immortalising a populist narrative.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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