Janhvi Kapoor starrer Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl has received a nod of disapproval from the Indian Air Force. Following the film’s OTT release the IAF has written a letter to the Censor Board, sending it to Netflix and Dharma Productions as well, calling out the film’s “undue negative portrayal” of Air Force’s work culture. “In the aim to glorify the screen character of ”Ex-Flt Lt Gunjan Saxena”, Dharma Productions presented some situations that are misleading and portray an inappropriate work culture especially against women in the IAF,” reads the letter.
So what exactly is it that the film gets wrong? What was the work culture like at the IAF, when women made their foray into the stream? Did they face any discrimination or hostility that is alleged in the film? To understand this, SheThePeople reached out to Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja, Retired Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Training Command, who trained the batch of women pilots in the transport stream back in 1994.
Posted at Yelahanka Air Force base, Bangalore in August 1994 as the Chief Instructor, he trained the first course of women to join the Air Force as pilots in the transport stream. Air Marshal Kukreja says that when he visited the training area upon joining, he found that facilities that women needed were not ready then. “Definitely there were teething problems. Ladies have been in the Air Force earlier as doctors, who hardly used to come to the flying section. If they did come, we didn’t have to prepare special facilities for them in terms of toilets, changing rooms etc.”
However, with women training as pilots, Air Marshal Kukreja says the Air Force ensured that necessary facilities such as toilets and changing rooms for them were prepared “on a war footing”. But this is where the segregation ended. Since the women were going to fly with male instructors and pilots, he wanted them to sit with their male colleagues, even when they were not training. “So the crew room was common, and the changing room and toilet were separated out. Rest everything was common.”
The change, however, went beyond the provision of basic facilities, and both the genders benefitted from it. “When I was a cadet, way back in 1971, an odd instructor used to use abusive language in the cockpit, though on the ground they were very sweet,” Air Marshal Kukreja recalls. As the Chief Instructor at Yelahanka however, Air Marshal Kukreja says, “I told my instructors that there will be no abusive language, no invectives to flow in the cockpit, not just for the girls even for the boys because there are some boys who are sensitive as well. They immediately get a mental block (when abusive language is used) and stop learning.”
In the year 2001, he was posted back to Yelahanka as the Station Commander. “By that time the men had also got used to taking instructions and orders from lady officers. So there was no cultural difference to worry about. The men, being from different strata of society, as compared to the officers, were so well adjusted, that there was never ever a complaint from either a lady officer that ‘so and so is not listening to me or obeying my instructions’ or from an airman, who turned around and said, ‘kar lo kya karte ho, main nahi karunga.’ There was never an incident like this, not just in Yelahanka or when I took over as the Commandant of the Air Force Academy.”
Air Marshal Kukreja emphasises that ladies, whether they are training for a ground duty branch, or for flying branch, “there is no difference in their capabilities as compared to their male counterparts. There are boys who can’t make the grade, and there are girls who can’t make the grade.”
Speaking on Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl Air Marshal Kukreja says that while he has only seen excerpts from its trailer, but he does feel that “the dialogues are offensive and there is no way that anybody, whether he is a flyer or a ground duty officer, would use such language in the Air Force.”
In the trailer, we see hear a voiceover say “agar Air Force join karna hai to fauji ban kar dikhao warna ghar ja kar belan chalao.” In another scene, the character of Gunjan Saxena on complaining that she didn’t have a place to change into overalls is told by a senior officer “tarmac par change kar leti.”
Air Marshal Kukreja asks, “Would he dare say that to a male cadet or a male officer? No.” According to him, there is that any senior male officer will never tell that to anybody, more so never to a lady officer.
In another scene from the trailer, Gunjan’s senior officer tells her “tum kamzor ho” and that there is no place for “weakness” in Defence. Air Marshal Kukreja argues that every cadet is selected through the service selection board where they have to meet minimum standards of physical fitness and go through a psychological examination for mental toughness. This is followed by a year-long training at the Air Force Academy. Although despite training, it is possible for a pilot to have a nervous breakdown, but that has nothing to do with their gender.
“The selection and the strengthening process that goes on at the Air Force Academy and thereafter is tremendous. And if for some reason an officer finds a girl “kamzor” then I would say that the blame is on the senior officer who is not grooming her properly.”
As the Armed Forces sees an increasing representation on big and small screen, the makers are prone to getting everything from uniforms to haircuts wrong. For instance, in 2016, India Today executive editor Sandeep Unnithan pointed out in a tweet how the maker’s of the film Rustom, starring Akshay Kumar, get a 1950s Navy Officer’s uniform wrong. “Bollywood can never get the uniform right. The horrid #Rustom (set in ’59) is no exception,” he wrote.
According to Air Marshal Kukreja moviemakers often “just don’t bother. They think uniform pehna dia to fauji ban jaega. Whereas to look like a fauji they have to start thinking like a fauji.” He too points out that Bollywood often tends to get uniforms wrong. When it comes to ribbons “Army and the Air Force have an upward pyramidical structure of the ribbons on the left chest; the apex is on the top. The Navy has it other way round- a bottom down pyramid- like the shape of a ship. I have noticed in one of these films that the army chap was wearing his ribbons like that of the Navy. That is not correct. A common man may not notice the fault, but an army man will.”
Film and television makers clearly need to put in more research, as the retired Air Marshal says, “You got to do a lot of homework.”
The negative language and attitude shown in the film, or at least what can be judged from the trailer can end up discouraging women from joining the Air Force. Says Air Marshal Kukreja, “This movie is supposed to be an inspiration to girls to join the Armed Forces. Instead, a seed of doubt can be implanted by seeing this, and they may think that girls have to go through such kind of training or face such kind of humiliation.”