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Anti-Pakistan propaganda remains a recurrent theme in numerous Bollywood movies. In fact, through the cinematic lens, movies such as Border, LoC Kargil, Raazi, and Uri, etc., have kept an anti-Pakistan perspective as a central theme to the plot. Such movies with nationalist themes, culminating with a unilateral Indian victory over Pakistan, resonate finely with the Indian audience with corresponding commercial benefits for the producers.

Based on the Pulwama incident and events thereafter, Fighter marks a new addition to the list of anti-Pakistan propaganda content. The movie has emerged as the highest-grossing Indian movie of 2024 so far. While the cast deserves due appreciation for their convincing portrayal as fighter pilots, it is the plot that is extremely problematic and undermines the film’s overall credibility.

In the initial scenes, the movie features the Pulwama incident, showing the death scenes of Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. Factual inaccuracies are apparent from the onset, with the film reporting 70 deaths in contrast to the actual toll of 40. This overreporting of fatalities seems designed to exaggerate the existing threat and provoke a strong emotional response. Subsequently, Pakistan was accused of sponsoring the attack in collaboration with a terrorist faction. Scenes depicting a key Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) leader bursting into a senior military leader’s office to discuss future plans further exacerbate these distorted portrayals.

The later scenes depict the so-called Balakot Strikes by the Indian Air Force (IAF), portraying massive destruction and the alleged killing of approximately 300 terrorists within Pakistani territory – a false claim lacking any evidence in reality. As the Indian jets were depicted fleeing the scene, the film shows a two-way locking of air-to-air missiles between the aircraft of the two forces. Additionally, the pilots are portrayed engaging in dramatic conversations with each other – a scenario that is technically implausible due to the use of different radios and frequencies by the respective forces. To project IAF’s superiority, the Pakistani pilot was seen disengaging his target due to the intimidating remarks of the Indian pilot. Furthermore, this scene perpetuates the traditional Indian stereotype of Pakistanis with kohl-lined eyes and using salutations like ‘Aadab’ and ‘Janab.’ Remarkably, this portrayal is extended even to fighter pilots during the combat scenarios.

Subsequently, a heavily altered version of the events of 27 February 2019, was presented, notably omitting the episode where Wing Commander Abhinandan ejected into Pakistani territory. Instead, two Indian pilots were seen falling inside Pakistani territory as a result of the aerial encounter with the Pakistan Air Force. Surprisingly, although the pilots were captured by the military, they were depicted as being held by JeM fighters at one of their hideouts. Predictably, the incident of India accidentally shooting down its own Mi-17 helicopter was omitted from the narrative.

In another notable departure from the actual events, the narrative progresses to replace Pakistan’s peace gesture of releasing Wing Commander Abhinandan with a dark and cruel episode. Disregarding the agreement to release both pilots by Pakistan, a horrific scene unfolds in the film with one of the pilot’s brutally murdered body sent back to India. At the same time, the other is denied permission to leave at the last moment – provoking a military response from New Delhi.

In a dramatic turn of events, the movie then ventures into a covert operation. The second pilot is shown as being successfully retrieved in an operation launched by IAF with ground units crossing the Line of Control (LoC). This entirely fictional and overly dramatised operation even shows Kotli and Rawalakot airfields and several Pakistani F-16s being destroyed in the process – exaggerating documented events to an overblown level. The last scenes of the movie deliver exactly what the audience wanted to hear from the start – the IAF pilot hinting toward an ‘Indian Occupied Pakistan’, reinforcing the narrative of nationalism, supremacy and conquest.

Overall, such narration aims to strengthen propaganda against Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism across the border and malign its image. While such content may help reflect the desired narrative through one-sided and inaccurate representation, it inadvertently shows an unprofessional image of its depicted forces. Patriotism in the film reaches an extent that it enters into the realm of jingoism. In this context, the best IAF pilot in the Air Dragon unit named Patty was repeatedly seen demonstrating troubling behaviour and disregard for military discipline. Apart from repeatedly questioning the decisions of his Commanding Officers, he was seen blatantly ignoring instructions. During the aerial encounter on 27th February, he is shown crossing the LoC without official sanction. Likewise, during the ground operation, he is on the verge of committing a court martial offence by nearly hijacking a fighter aircraft to retrieve his course mate despite being removed from the operation team. In the final aerial showdown, disregarding orders to avoid the F-16, ‘Patty’ deliberately collides with the Pakistani aircraft before ejecting – his way of settling scores with the Pakistani pilot he had earlier engaged.

Movies like Fighter represent another installment in the continuing series of on-screen propaganda against Pakistan, blending action with patriotism to shape public perception. These fabricated tales of heroism augur well with the Indian audience and are potentially a good tool for garnering votes for the ultra-nationalist parties, especially when released near the general elections like this one. However, these narratives do not reflect actual battlefield realities. While Hollywood also has a history of portraying Russian and Chinese characters in a negative light, the impact of such portrayals can be particularly problematic. They not only shape public sentiment but also risk escalating tensions between nations. In regions like South Asia, where geopolitical relationships are already strained, films like these can exacerbate misunderstandings and hinder diplomatic efforts. Nonetheless, it is clear that since such content is widely accepted in India, one will continue to see similar productions in the future, influencing public sentiment.

Shaza Arif is a Research Associate at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. The article was first published in The News International. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com.

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