White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Hindi Movie Review: Fighter is another top-notch blockbuster crowd-pleaser from Siddharth Anand and Hrithik Roshan

Hrithik Roshan stars in the new Hindi movie "Fighter," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

Much like its clear source of commercial inspiration, Top Gun: Maverick, Siddharth Anand’s Fighter knows how to play to audience tastes with filmmaking that’s skillful and self-aware enough that it never feels pandering in an icky way. And while it may be playing in the same sandbox as the Tom Cruise megahit, it entirely justifies its own existence, strongly executing each genre component of its masala mashup (drama, action, romance, buddy ensemble). From very early on in the movie, we know exactly how it is going to end, but that doesn’t make us any less engaged by what it’s dishing out. Fighter is perfectly calibrated popcorn entertainment.

Co-writer/director Anand brought us last year’s Pathaan and 2019’s War, and he once again proves himself to be one of Bollywood’s cleanest commercial craftsmen. That might seem like a backhanded compliment, insofar as it implies a “sanitized” body of work aimed at the widest audience possible. But I mean it as a sincere commendation: it isn’t easy to consistently deliver movies catering to mass tastes that retain their elegance and their vitality. This achievement was a big part of what made Top Gun: Maverick such a big worldwide word-of-mouth sensation, and Anand is able to achieve the same feat in his films. Yes, they follow the expected beats, but they do so in a way that reminds us of why the beats exist in the first place.

The story follows a newly-formed team of elite Indian Air Force aviators who are among those responsible for protecting Kashmir amidst an escalation in threats from the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group, on the heels of several Indian military victories in the region. Commanded by Captain Rocky Singh (played by Anil Kapoor), the group is fronted by squadron leaders Shamsher “Patty” Pathania (played by Hrithik Roshan) and Minal “Mini” Rathore (played by Deepika Padukone). It isn’t long before romantic sparks begin to fly between the two pilots, despite Patty’s dark past mixing love and work. Other key members of the unit include Sartaj “Taj” Gill (played by Karan Singh Grover) and Basheer “Bash” Khan (played by Akshay Oberoi).

Wisely taking another page from the Top Gun playbook, much of the first act of Fighter focuses on the camaraderie and internal competition among the squadron, as well as the sheer fun of practicing flying together. Captain Rocky emphasizes the value of developing a deep bond together both in the skies and on the ground, and the ensuing rapport between the group feels totally effortless. Their banter together, even just sharing meals, is enjoyable and infectious. When their aerial adventures are all fun and games in the early going, the film soars on the sheer likability of its cast, particularly Roshan and Padukone in the lead roles. You can’t help but root for them both as teammates and as a couple; the movie simply nails the fundamentals of this relationship too well for the viewer to approach it with cynicism, as contrived as it may be.

Needless to say, Fighter can’t remain a purely fun adventure about the liberating power of aviation and intrasquad bonds forever. Following a vehicular suicide bombing that kills dozens of Indian soldiers heading into Kashmir, our focal team (named Air Dragons) must begin real-deal military operations to keep Jaish from realizing their most lethal plans against India. With the clock ticking as a top terrorist named Azhar Akhtar (played with the maximum degree of evil creepiness by Rishabh Sawhney) develops devastating plots, the aviators must conduct several dangerous missions inside Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The action sequences are largely riveting. Surely, having Maverick out in the world before entering principal photography was an asset to Anand and DP Satchith Paulose, as they could learn from what worked most cinematographically there, but that’s not to say this is a copy-cat exercise. While one can definitely spot the visual reference points to its American predecessor throughout, Fighter certainly has its own distinguished aesthetic, and the way in which the filmmakers give the audience a visceral glimpse at aerial combat is impressive. There are several close-calls for the characters that will have most viewers holding their breath, even when the dogfight theatrics veer a little far out of the parameters of reality and into the realm of Hollywood embellishment. Anand does such a good job of fueling investment in the characters and photographing the action dynamically that viewers should be able to stick with even the most farfetched action in the movie. The film’s cross-cutting strategy back to Mission Control is also quite elegant, working to build the tension in an unobtrusive, well-flowing manner.

Without giving away too much, the second half of Fighter sees a good amount of dramatic upheaval, where the emotional toll of the profession and Patty’s recklessness as a fighter pilot come to the fore. This is to be expected, and it’s necessary to drive the film’s ramp-up to its climax, which is both entirely predictable in nature and entirely welcome when it happens. One could certainly argue that Anand spends a little too long allowing his protagonist to wallow and hit rock bottom before he once again rises to the occasion that the movie sets up for him, as we all know he will. But Hrithik Roshan does a surprisingly good job of conveying Patty’s sensitive side and past trauma – I was frankly impressed, as I didn’t expect this out of him – so it’s mostly palatable.

Fighter’s portrayal of Pakistan – specifically, the relationships between the government, the Army, and terrorist groups operating within the country – has already come under some degree of scrutiny among the left-leaning press, both in India and abroad. You already know the adjectives: “xenophobic,” “jingoistic,” et cetera, et cetera. These largely strike me as the rantings of a media that loves to harp on any film with strongly nationalistic themes (e.g., Gadar 2). Fighter struck me, an American, as a pretty wholesome representation of national pride and a grave illustration of the continued threat of global jihadism, wrapped up in blockbuster packaging. That’s hardly anything to get worked up over, no matter how politically sensitive you are.

Not to mention, geopolitics are only the backdrop for this otherwise fun, adventure-forward entertainment. Even if I found certain elements of Fighter ideologically objectionable, I would find it hard to get too worked up over a movie that contains not one, not two, but three major musical numbers featuring Roshan either shirtless or with a single buttoned button. (The songs and dances, by the way, are perfectly fun and enjoyable – on a similar level to those in Pathaan – but hardly memorable beyond Roshan’s ridiculous wardrobe choices.) That’s really the bottom line overall, too: you could certainly diminish Fighter by over-thinking it, but why would you? This is as purely engaging and confidently constructed as mainstream actioners get.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

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