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Politics simultaneously are and aren’t the thing in “Fighter,” a Bollywood military drama that takes heavy inspiration from “Top Gun: Maverick.” Released in time for India’s Republic Day, “Fighter” explicitly recalls both the 2019 Pulwama attack that, in real life, left 40 Indian military police dead in Kashmir, as well as the successive Balakot air strike that, depending on who you believe, either killed no one or a bunch of anti-Indian extremists. Using these real-life events as the pretext for a saber-rattling crowd-pleaser isn’t surprising given the rise of nationalist sentiments both in Hindi-language pop cinema and Modi-era India.
Then again, surprises aren’t the main draw in “Fighter,” whose creators stick closely to formulaic story beats and other Bollywood-centric melodramatic tropes. Much of the movie focuses on the camaraderie and romance that unites two exemplary Indian Air Force pilots, played by co-leads Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone, and a few of their comrades. “Fighter” still inevitably concludes with an overheated stand-off in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir, as well as a teasing threat that the next fight could be in, “Indian Occupied Pakistan.” “Fighter” was a hit this past weekend, despite being banned from theatrical release across the gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates.
The makers of “Fighter” attempt a few standard dodges, as far as their characters’ motivating nationalism. It’s not the Pakistani people who are vilified, according to the movie, but rather a group of India-hating terrorists, led by unapologetic leader Azhar Akthar (Rishabh Sawhney), and oh yeah, the Pakistani Air Force, since they let Akhtar’s group cross the Line of Control that separates Indian and Pakistani territory.
In this light, it makes sense that the makers of “Fighter” used the Pulwama attack as the model for their fictionalized dramatic catalyst, since it left 40 Indian soldiers dead and wasn’t directly caused by a nation armed with nuclear weapons. In real life, Modi’s administration has been accused of ignoring or even suppressing intelligence reports that might have prevented the Pulwama strike. You’ll find no such criticism of the Indian government or its army in “Fighter,” as one might expect from a movie that’s clearly modeled after a “Top Gun” sequel.
The movie’s Indian Air Force drama is also pretty by the numbers, from its romantic musical numbers to its “Top Gun”-style chain of command Air Force drama, which mostly concerns flag-waving rebel pilot Shamsher “Patty” Pathania (Roshan) and disapproving Group Captain Rakesh “Rocky” Jai Singh (Anil Kapoor). Patty and Rocky butt heads, but they inevitably pull it together for a dangerous mission, which climaxes with a hilariously over-the-top game of chicken. It’s not an especially realistic confrontation, but neither are the preceding scenes where Patty and his fellow Air Force pilots both work and play hard. A representatively energetic, but unexceptional musical number features lyrics like, “The lions are on the prowl tonight.”
Roshan’s charisma is put to work here, especially when Patty takes a bet and tries to charm a plate of biryani away from a pair of hungry (and notably overweight) strangers. That’s the level of emotional depth in “Fighter,” a movie where the main bad guy has one bloodshot eye and where the airplanes are mostly computer-generated, particularly when they’re airborne.
“Fighter” is also fairly typical in that, while Padukone hits all of her marks, she doesn’t really get to do as much as Roshan. He mostly succeeds in selling the emotional gravity of this pop corn cheesy material, which often feels like a throwback to the recent past, when mass-audience-oriented Bollywood star vehicles almost completely dominated the Indian box office. Roshan shows off his chiseled abs and executes simple dance moves with ease. He’s played less than lovable characters in recent years, as in “War,” an overstuffed 2019 action caper helmed by “Fighter” director Siddharth Anand. But Roshan’s on steadier ground in “Fighter” as a dependable, well-assembled good guy with a generic lust for revenge.
Anand scored a big hit last year with “Pathaan” by hitching himself to Shah Rukh Khan’s runaway comeback train. But in Roshan, Anand seems to have found a better collaborator, or maybe a better showcase for his star. Unlike Khan, Roshan makes viewers lean in, which goes a long way in both Patty’s musical numbers and aerial fights. In both cases, Roshan delivers a full performance with just his signature hazel green eyes.
With all that said, “Fighter” might credibly be retitled “Believer,” given how much of its drama tests Patty’s conviction that India will always meet and defeat its enemies. If you judge the movie on its loaded terms, you might still find its extra aerial chases to be thrilling, especially when seen and heard in a decent multiplex. “Fighter” never strays far from the path that other movies like it have previously charted, but it still delivers most of what it promises.
Hrithik Roshan as Shamsher 'Patty' Pathania
Deepika Padukone as Minal 'Minni' Rathore
Anil Kapoor as Rakesh 'Rocky' Jaisingh
Akshay Oberoi as Basheer 'Bash' Khan
Karan Singh Grover as Sartaaj 'Taj' Gill
Rishabh Sawhney as Azhar Akhtar
Sanjeeda Sheikh as Saanchi
Ashutosh Rana as Abhijeet Rathore
Geeta Agrawal Sharma as Usha Rathore
Vinay Varma as Debojyoti Biswas
Seerat Mast as Naina 'Enjay' Jaisingh
Banveen Singh as Sukhdeep Singh
Mahesh Shetty as Rajan 'Unni' Unnithan
Chandan Anand as Harish 'Nauty' Nautiyal