Thursday 1 February 2024

Mid gun: "Fighter"

At some point, the Hindi mainstream is going to have to stop waving flags as it has been of late: its arms are getting tired, the ideas are drying up, and the target audience is too busy harassing street vendors and being angry online to actually show up in cinemas. In the meantime, we have Siddharth Anand's
Fighter, which struck me as a confluence of three things: first and foremost, the kind of top-down nationalism that only gets fostered by profoundly insecure administrations; secondly, the up-and-coming Anand's need to make nice or make amends after the ridiculous furore over Deepika's poolwear in last year's Pathaan; and lastly, the success of Top Gun: Maverick in bringing patrons back to the megaplex in the wake of the pandemic. Someone in Bombay sat watching Tom Cruise taking out an unspecified munitions base, pointed at the screen, and exclaimed "get me one of those, only in saffron", and so here we all are twelve months on. The new film is at least upfront in what it's doing. Fighter opens with a supersized disclaimer (no offence to anyone, even the countries, institutions and religions we'll spend the next three hours ragging on), full-screen logos for the Ministry of Defence and Indian Air Force, and a martyr video being taped by a young Pakistani suicide bomber plotting explosive action against Indian military installations. You sigh, and look to see whose turn it is to defend the motherland in unflattering khaki. In no particular order, this month's reservists are Deepika Padukone, eternally upright but turning circles as a chopper pilot with the non-chopper pilot name of Mini; Anil Kapoor as a CO with two modes, squinting at screens and barking orders; and comeback kid Hrithik Roshan as a fighter pilot with the non-fighter pilot name of Patty, who announces his arrival by flying a jump jet upside down mere inches off the runway, thereby establishing himself as among the most gung-ho of bellends. Oddly enough, Patty then proceeds to be comparatively well-behaved for the rest of the film - a maverick, yes, but not so troublesome that he can't be seen barely half an hour later waving a tricolor from the open door of a helicopter. By that point in Fighter, I think we've got the idea: everybody here is following orders.

The consolation for the industry, as the film plays to reportedly empty screens across India, is that after Pathaan and War, Anand remains a broadly reliable director of action; it may be even more impressive that he can kickstart it from flat, largely joyless and interminably jingoistic material like this. Fighter's dogfights don't soar as those in Top Gun: Maverick did, but they reach an acceptable level of elevation, and stay on the right side of coherent. It's just Anand is proving a far more consistent shotmaker than he is a writer. On a script level, his latest is an industrial-scaled welding job. The first half is original Top Gun, complete with Patty giving Mini a ride on his vintage motorbike, and a Goose-style tragedy; the second is Maverick, rejoining our hero as he's grounded teaching at an air academy. There are notable regional variations: these pilots go out for paneer rather than pool and beer, a double-triple-or-quadruple agent does all his undercover work beneath a full niqab, and apparently Indian and Pakistani hotshots bait one another over the airwaves like kids playing Minecraft online (rather than, you know, simply pushing the button to blow their rivals sky high). There is also a lot of incredibly rote connective tissue: Patty haunted by the death of a colleague he was sweet on, Mini estranged from a father who didn't want a daughter and certainly wasn't going to let his daughter pursue a career doing what he considered boys' stuff. The chief villain, helpfully, has a Marilyn Manson-ish bloodshot eye, to better define him against the gym-buffed, medical-cleared perfection of our heroes. (This is not a film that intends us to miss its inclinations and preferences.) It comes as marked relief whenever the stars get to throw off their military duds and set about the scenes that must have been fun to shoot, that were performed out of joy rather than duty: Anand loves musical numbers that look like ads for high-end holiday resorts (I'd book), and there's some modest fun back at Patty's family home, where Mini learns our boy has a nickname even less macho than Patty. Hell, you even cling to the unspeakably cheesy scenes that require Roshan to turn his emerald eyes on the supporting actresses to get what he wants, like Puss in Boots in the Shrek animations. But it's all conscripted charisma, stuck within a plot to turn movie stars - some of our best and brightest, no less - into dull plastic action figures with a pullstring in their backs that makes them salute and yelp "Jai Hind" whenever somebody offscreen gives it a very firm tug.

Fighter is now playing in selected cinemas.

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