Hindi film viewers still remember Tara/Sunny terrorising Pakistani security personnel with a handpump he ripped out of the ground in the blockbuster Gadar over two decades back. The director, Anil Sharma, knows that. And so, in this meta moment in Gadar 2 that was in theatres in 2023, he simply had Tara letting out a roar as he stands next to this new pump. Terrified Pakistanis flee.
As ridiculous as this scene may seem to those whose tastes do not extend to Pakistan-bashing farcical action, the fact is, Tara’s handpump is iconic among Gadar 2’s target audience. And so, in the line of duty, I forced myself to watch this film on an OTT after seeing last week’s theatrical release of Fighter. Directed by Siddharth Anand, starring Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone, Fighter is as obsessed with Pakistan as were Gadar 1 and 2, and I wanted to check how the two compare.
A tabulation of their qualities is interesting. On one side is the Gadar franchise: over-acted, tackily produced, terribly edited, headlined by a star who has long been lampooned for his over-the-top histrionics, whose family has openly aligned with the present ruling party for years now and who is an MP himself.
On the other side is Fighter: cliched, but largely technically polished, starring leads who have often received critical acclaim for their acting, and who have not overtly sided with the current regime off-screen. Padukone is admired by liberals for her visit to JNU during a protest against rightwing violence on campus in 2020, even though in 2018, she starred in the unabashedly Islamophobic Padmaavat.
Fighter is glossy, unlike Gadar 2. But its chest-thumping is just as crude. In one scene, Roshan’s character Shamsher Pathania tells a Pakistani terrorist: ‘PoK stands for Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. You have occupied it. But we [India] are the actual maalik [owners].’Here’s the catch. Gadar 2 was one of 2023’s highest grossers across India, whereas trade reports suggest that Fighter is floundering at the box office. ‘I guess the audience is bored with jingoism,’ an optimistic friend wrote to me on reading this news. As attractive as that theory sounds, it is improbable. The more likely reason for Fighter’s fate is that viewers want originality even in propaganda. Fighter felt like a recycling of the same director’s runaway hit, Pathaan (2023), which centred around the hero (Shah Rukh Khan) saving Kashmir from Pakistan even as he beds a beautiful Pakistani spy (Padukone). Pathaan strategically camouflaged its politics by mining the prevailing goodwill for Khan among India’s liberals, and supplementing it with more finessed writing than Gadar 2 and Fighter. Make no mistake about this though – its agenda too was Pakistan.
The past decade has witnessed a spate of Pakistan-fixated Hindi films, many of which have earned massive monetary returns. Knowing this industry’s penchant for jumping on to the safest bandwagon in sight, a probable after-effect of Fighter’s struggles is that production houses will return to the drawing board to find more innovative ways of playing to the gallery.
Fighter’s Shamsher Pathania envisions an ‘India-Occupied Pakistan’. But considering the mind space taken up by Pakistan in the film industry that delivered Pathaan, Fighter and Gadar 2 within the span of a single year, Bollywood could just as well be labelled POB, Pakistan-Occupied Bollywood.
Unless scores of films centred around India’s north-western neighbour flop in succession, Hindi producers will not give up this cash cow. Brace yourselves then for more handpumps, more gorgeous Pakistani women falling for Indian men, and more rants about the dushman desh.