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Operation Valentine (2024)

“Fighter” was the Hindi-language response of “Top Gun: Maverick;” and now we have “Operation Valentine,” the Telugu-language equivalent. It's about the same real-life incidents from 2019 also referenced in “Fighter,” but “Operation Valentine” is much the worse movie for two reasons. Firstly, director Shakti Pratap Singh chose to use footage of the real-life funerals which followed the 2019 attacks, which is desperately inappropriate. Secondly, it reduces the entire history of hostilities between two nations into one man's struggle with himself. It's a breathtaking achievement but perhaps not the intended one.

Pilot Arjun (Varun Tej) is currently grounded because of an accident which killed his wingman. He is married to Aahna (former Miss World Manushi Chhillar), who is head of the radar contingent on the ground, therefore acting as Arjun’s eyes and ears while he flies despite this being an impossible conflict of interest. That said, it’s needed for dramatic tension since Arjun is the one prepared to risk death for the great nation of India, while Aahna is the supportive and loving spouse mostly concerned with her man coming home alive. This makes it sound way more sexist than it actually is, but the narcissism of the concept – will Arjun stop taking such horrible risks in the skies? – has a lot to answer for. The wider squadron barely gets a look in, with the exception of Yash (Paresh Pahuja), call sign Anvil, and Tanya (Ruhani Sharma, underused), call sign Hammer. The ridiculous flirtation implied in their names is never given space, despite four credited screenwriters, to get off the ground.

The C.G.I. is surprisingly janky for such a big production, which means there’s very little genuine feeling from all the time in the air. On the other hand the pacing of the second half is firecracker, a relentless battle sequence with enough lovely aerial cinematography to make up for the sluggish first half. There's also some excellent stunt work involving men in fire suits that provides a sense of danger nothing else in the movie manages. At one point an older man trying to jam enemy radar says, "Why are you so interested in killing and dying? Learn to love," which provoked ripples of laughter in the audience.

For a patriotic extravaganza to wind up a comedy instead is depressing indeed. Ms. Chhillar does her dimpled best; and Mr. Tej manages to make his suicidally callous flyboy a kind and tender man underneath, which means the movie is just about watchable. But nothing justifies the inclusion of the funeral footage, which means “Operation Valentine” is a proper disgrace.


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