Fighter Shows Global Potential of Bollywood, and Limits of Popcorn Patriotism

Must heroism, family values, and video game-like dazzle necessarily overpower some deeper elements of war?

5 min read
Hindi Female

Memories of war movies I have watched and heard of tumbled out of my mind's cupboard as I watched Hrithik Roshan's Fighter last week.

The jury is still out as the box office response is lukewarm, but there is little doubt that the Rs 250-crore budget movie will be remembered for a long time as a near-classic, if not a classic, for its story, research, and production values. Two questions, however, linger in the mind as the Siddharth Anand film, made with passionate intensity, recovers its high budget in box office collections during the very first week after release:

  • What next, Bollywood?

  • And secondly, is there something missing in the way we are making conflict movies, for all the excellence that we can see on the big screen?


Before we answer those posers, a celebration of the all-new Bollywood is in order.

There is a real script, research, and painstakingly shot scenes in authentic locations mixed with an array of digitally-blessed graphic effects in Fighter that could stand up to a Bridge On the River Kwai by David Lean or Oliver Stone's Platoon, or indeed, Coppola's magical Apocalypse Now -- each of which I have savoured in detail. Technology does make movie-making easier now, but then, it is nice to see Bollywood matching contemporary Hollywood movies in production values and meticulousness. Fighter is the kind of stuff that should pull Netflix-overdosed couch potatoes to the large screen.

Things have come a long way since 1982 when arthouse filmmaker Govind Nihalani made Vijeta on a low budget that received critical acclaim, especially for its Air Force shots. But that was almost a small-screen movie celebrating the IAF. We earlier had Rajesh Khanna playing an Indian Air Force pilot in the celebrated Aradhana (1969) with the trademark Sapno Ki Rani song, and then the dashing Raaj Kumar playing an Air Force pilot in Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973).

India has had a long list of war movies thanks to the 1962 war with China and the Bangladesh conflict with Pakistan in 1971, but what we have now is the era of unconventional movie plots to portray proxy wars and cross-border terrorism, which is what Fighter is mostly about.

There is something about heroism that is certainly a crowd-puller, and, in the current wave of patriotism sweeping India, you could view Fighter as a war samosa with more masala. But there is much more to the movie, in which the glamorous Deepika Padukone ably essays a role as a daring yet caring helicopter pilot.

I would not have believed the character she played, Minal "Mini" Rathore, had I not watched the movie released on 25 January a few days after watching the Republic Day parade telecast in New Delhi, loaded with a heady mix of fancy airborne vehicles as well as a dazzling round of daredevilry by a horde of woman adventurers.

Has Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao been taken to the next level with Beti Bachao, Beti Udhao?


In Fighter, fun meets funeral meets family values in the quasi-romantic plot built around Shamsher "Patty" Pathania played by Roshan with engaging shades of grey. The character straddles guilt and break-the-rules adventurism and is the stuff of India's current zeitgeist — a very lower-middle-class hero and heroine, bound by a shared love of adventure and much else. Mini, the girl groomed to get married, defies family pressure to fight in Kashmir's skies, and the identifiable woman-can-do-anything theme oozes out of the screen.

There is plenty of research that has gone into the dogfights-in-the-sky scenes (I have inside information from one of the co-producers). You can picture yourself almost in the cockpit or perhaps inside a video game console or as a fly on the wall of an Air Force station.

That is much appreciated, thank you, but must we have caricatured terrorists and overdone climax scenes?

There is a comic-book caricature character to a long-drawn climax and Azhar Akhtar, a T-shirt-clad jehadi played by Rishabh Sawhney portraying a lampoon-style cruelty, has an unreal touch that spoils the generous dash of identifiable characters in the rest of the plot.

The producers may tell you that Gen X, Y, Z, or the Millennials love such stuff.

But that's precisely my worry. If Bollywood can match Hollywood in production values, it is time to set the sights higher than Rambo-style adventurism. Maybe we can pick a leaf out of Steven Spielberg movies like Schindler's List on the Nazi era or the amazing Munich built around the Palestinian terror attack in the 1972 Olympics.

The tug-pulling of hearts in Fighter is too much of the popcorn patriotism variety, of which we have seen quite a few in the past few years coinciding with the political climate in India.

To Siddharth Anand's credit, he manages to pack in a Karan Johar-like family element within a war plot and throws in some bumchum humour to match. To the credit of dialogue writers Abbas and Hussain Dalal the punchlines match the screen razzmatazz, and the research by co-producer Ramon Chibb (co-writer with Abbas Dalal and director Anand) is of essence.

Add to that the fact that the screenplay carefully eschews religious bigotry which is all too easy in a conflict involving Pakistan, and you do want to doff a hat.


The question, however, lingers: must heroism, family values, and video-game-like dazzle necessarily overpower some deeper elements of war? It is as if we have a caste system in war movies: either they are about adventures and victories, or the moral, human element.

Years ago, when J P Dutta's war movies charmed Indian audiences, a celebrated movie critic moralised in an op-ed piece that war movies are supposed to bring in messages of peace, and not celebratory jingoism. That is a point well taken but you cannot be sermonising, if you know what I mean.

We have had movies like Meghna Gulzar's Raazi (2018) and Vishal Bharadwaj's Hamlet-based Haider (2014) dealing with some elements of woman spies and the everyday life of civilians in terror-hit zones. The harsh fact is that heroism and sacrifice have a human element, and so do human rights issues and the plight of civilians in conflict zones.

We also had a rare Indo-Pakistani co-production, the award-winning Khamosh Pani made in 2003 that examines the human backdrop of latter-day terrorism much like Syriana (2005), a George Clooney-starrer directed by Stephen Gaghan on geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East/West Asia.

There are two sides to humane portrayals in conflict zones: one involves soldiers and the other involves civilians. It is as if Bollywood's caste system will not let the twain meet adequately enough. Perhaps it is time to push the envelope there. Spielberg shows the way.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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