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Fighter Review: Might Pass Muster If Hrithik Roshan

The least one would expect from the first film of an intended franchise is freshness, if not exceptional originality. Let alone soaring to great heights, Fighter, an aerial action thriller directed and co-produced by Siddharth Anand (War, Pathaan), struggles to shake off its flat trajectory.

For the audience, if you aren't a Hrithik Roshan fan or an inveterate admirer of Bollywood's notion of a war film, the challenge is to fight off the overwhelming ennui that quickly sets in and takes the film down with it. But if the presence of Hrithik is enough inducement, Fighter might pass muster. But that is about it.

Twenty years ago, Hrithik Roshan was Captain Karan Shergill, a drifter who found his purpose in life by joining the Indian Army. Five years ago, he donned the garb of Major Kabir Dhaliwal, a secret agent gone rogue. Now, he is Squadron Leader Shamsher Pathania, a man quick to dive into tricky situations.

All of the aforementioned three are men of immense courage and confidence when the need to take the fight into the enemy camp arises. So, if you've seen one of them, the pilot that the lead actor plays in Fighter is just an addition to a tribe trapped in a rut.

The actor's Army/Intelligence/Air Force persona is beset with a degree of monotony that stems from the names and the characteristics that he assumes. He can perform feats that are out of the ordinary. Although parts of Fighter unfold in a realistic vein, the male protagonist's heroism is defined by his all-round abilities.

He is a cocky fighter pilot who flies into danger without batting an eyelid. He is a charmer who can talk two ladies into parting with their plates of biryani. He can dance like a dream after a mission has been accomplished and a peppy celebratory number is in order. And, when things heat up, he can jump into a close-quarters combat with the villain.

The rank, the outfit and the mode of operation may change but the approach does not. But that, needless to say, is how Bollywood stardom works. As Squadron Leader Shamsher Pathania, a crack fighter pilot who believes he is a fighter first and a pilot only next, Roshan powers Siddharth Anand's first entry in what is proposed to be a series of Air Force action films.

While it is no Top Gun, Fighter is a competently mounted, shot and edited film. It will probably find the fans that it is looking for. However, despite Deepika Padukone adding to the star power quotient, the film feels vacuous and vapid. The problem lies in its storyline - it is a compilation of cliches.

The biggest one rests on the shrill bluster that offence is always the best form of defence, and the best response to deceit is instant revenge. That locates Fighter firmly in the narrow construct that Bollywood war films operate within.

The human pieces in here are familiar. An air warrior grappling with personal reverses. A senior Air Force pro focused on teamwork struggles to keep the younger man of action on a leash. A female fighter pilot up against gender discrimination from her father is out to prove him and the rest of the world wrong. A terror kingpin determined to strike at India's defence establishment.

Along the way, Pulwama, Balakot, Uri and stone-pelting are referenced. The outcome on all counts - and fronts - is predictable. Shamsher earns his redemption and a second shot at inner peace but not before he has encountered a series of setbacks.

Squadron Leader Minal Rathore (Deepika Padukone) finds the love of her life even as she soars into the sky against all odds. Group Captain Rakesh Jaisingh (Anil Kapoor) is a stickler for protocol who repeatedly shows why he is such a good leader. And the evil, big-talking terrorist, Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sawhney) spews venom without let and paves the way for a final extraction from across the border.

Fighter is entirely about how these four characters get to where they eventually do. The 166-minute film, especially its first half, abounds in dogfights and daring air sorties designed to demonstrate the courage of the fighter pilots. Some of the action is pretty impressive but none of it is likely to have you jump out of your seats in delight. There is little in the film that justifies its 3D format.

Scripted by Ramon Chibb with Siddharth Anand, Fighter works best when it decides to slow down a tad in the second half. Its emotional high point occurs when Samsher meets Minal's father (Ashutosh Rana) and mother (Geeta Agrawal) by accident and proceeds to impress upon them the enormity of their daughter's achievements.

Among the pilots in the Air Dragons team formed after the early 2019 terrorist attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama is Basheer Khan (Akshay Oberoi). He gets to spout what are by far the most patriotic lines in the film - a repeat of a poignant and patriotically pointed couplet that Shamsher recites early in the film.

Fighter is also a story of enduring camaraderie between Shamsher and his Air Force Academy batchmate Sartaj Gill (Karan Singh Grover). The relationship between the two fighter pilots and between Shamsher and Sartaj's wife Saanchi (Sanjeeda Sheikh) lays the foundation for the climax of the film. However, the bromance is a largely one-man affair. Fighter is Hrithik Roshan's film and the screenplay never lets him out of sight.

The muted romance that blossoms between the hero and Minal is set against the background of a tragedy. It provides Fighter a few of its more convincing moments because the exchanges between the two are allowed some breathing spaces.

Hrithik Roshan does his best to lift the film as high as he can. Deepika Padukone is solid and completely at home in a predominantly man's world. Anil Kapoor's restraint adds a degree of gravitas to the film. But Fighter could have done with a more fearsome villain.

Karan Singh Grover and Akshay Oberoi make the most of roles that do not exactly place them at the centre of the film. Ashutosh Rana and Geeta Agrawal have precisely two scenes in Fighter and that is all they need. They make an instant impression.

Fighter is fairly watchable. But with a little more imagination and a little less jingoism, it could have been scintillating.

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