Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is about many things. It is about the first IAF female pilot who went to war and it is about the gender biases faced by her at every step; it’s about a nation at war and it is about women’s everyday war against casual misogyny and workplace discrimination; it redefines patriotism and it battles patriarchy; it portrays men as bullies, but it also showcases them as allies. However, perhaps more than anything else, the film, at its heart, is a poignant ode to a father-daughter relationship.
Released on Netflix on August 12, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl stars Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Vineet Kumar Singh, Ayesha Raza Mishra and Manav Vij, among others. The film is the directorial debut of Sharan Sharma, and is produced by Dharma Productions and Zee Studios. The music for the film is by Amit Trivedi. As noted above, the film is a biopic that tells the story of India’s first Air Force woman officer who went to war. During the Kargil War in 1999, Gunjan saved the lives of many soldiers and was awarded with the Shaurya Chakra for showing bravery and grit during the battle.
The Plot And Representation Of Discrimination Within IAF
We are initially introduced to a nine-year-old sky-struck Gunjan who makes paper airplanes and dreams of flying. As she grows up and shares her dream of becoming a pilot with her family, her mother (Ayesha Raza Mishra) and brother (Angad Bedi) oppose it. But despite their rebuffs, Gunjan manages to join the IAF training academy and becomes the only woman to pass all the tests and trainings. It is the constant support she receives from her father (Pankaj Tripathi) that helps her succeed. But Gunjan’s actual struggle begins once she reaches the all-male Indian Air Force base. It is at her training base that Gunjan realises that her challenges are twofold: she has to soar above the ground and she has to hold her ground; she has to become a pilot and she has to fly in the face of decades of gender prejudices.
We see Gunjan using the men’s bathroom since the IAF base did not have a women’s bathroom. She gets late to her practice session every day because she has to rush back to the dormitories to change clothes, and that makes her flunk the reporting time. Until one day she decides she has had enough and erects a make-shift changing room right inside the class campus. It makes her male colleagues uneasy, but she does not have any other choice. She is denied opportunities because her colleagues’ fragile masculinity is threatened, “turn from here else we’ll have to salute a woman”. Even during the Kargil War, politicians oppose her appointment as a defence pilot by saying they cannot put “nation’s daughter in danger” by letting her fight in the war. And these are merely some of the incidents amongst the volley of discriminative practises that Gunjan has to struggle against.
The Acting and The Direction
Janhvi Kapoor makes for an earnest protagonist and lends charm and a youthful determination to Gunjan’s character. At times, her acting does feel a little mellow, although surprisingly that only adds to her character’s personality of a drained woman who is tired of the jabs aimed against her every minute of the day. Pankaj Tripathi is an actor who is beyond praises, and here too we see him in an exquisite form. He plays the role of a doting yet progressive father, and there is a certain restrain that the actor brings in to his character which makes him a delight to watch. His presence is enough to light up the entire scene, even when he is not saying anything. He plays the perfect supporting character who helps Kapoor, doing the heavy-lifting in emotional scenes.
Angad Bedi is a fine actor who plays the sexist-yet-concerned brother whom one cannot decide if one wants to hate or love. Ayesha Raza Mishra as Gunjan’s mother fits the bill, although one wishes that her character was given more depth and time to develop. Both Vineet Kumar Singh and Manav Vij, portraying two contrasting male-officers, do an incredible job to make their characters look real and human. The film is well-produced and well-directed. The editing goes hand-in-hand with the script without making the scenes and props look superfluous. Manush Nandan’s camerawork deserves a special mention. His camera operates on a humanitarian level, especially in the war sequences, as opposed to showing soldiers and pilots as killing machines. Debutant director Sharan Sharma makes his mark as he moves away from the stereotypical chest-thumping, flag-waving jingoism of commercial Bollywood films to a more subtle, yet brave storyline.
Tale Of A Father-Daughter Relationship
One absolutely cannot review the film without talking about the figure of the feminist father that Pankaj Tripathi brings to life. Gunjan’s father Anup is a dear example of just how men who want to be allies to the feminist cause can use their social capital to make space for women. He is the de facto head of the house by the virtue of being a man, and he uses this power to gently, but firmly to support Gunjan despite opposition from other family members. As we are told in retrospect, Gunjan’s dreams were never defined by gender as her father didn’t let anybody imbibe it in her as a child. It’s told that he even scolded neighbourhood boys when they refused to take Gunjan in their all-boys cricket game! And while the entire society tries to curtail her growth, it’s Gunjan’s father who becomes the wind beneath her wings.
The real-life pilot Gunjan Saxena, if we just go by her achievement list, is a formidable name. But the protagonist of this film is never allowed to fly ‘solo’. Meaning, she is constantly being helped, which is fine because as women we do need allies, but to show that she has no power over her circumstances does take away a certain level of agency from her character’s personality. On the other hand, the script foregrounds the men in Gunjan’s life, which makes us wonder why the film finds no space for a woman ally. Because no matter what the popular discourse may want us to believe, women have always found support in other women. While it’s progressive and quite realistic to show that Gunjan found allies amongst male colleagues and relatives, to show that she had no women offering her moral support wedges a hole in the entire narrative of the film.
Despite the shortcomings, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is an amazing film. It tells not just the story of one extraordinary woman, but symbolically of every remarkable woman who has ever lived and battled patriarchy. It is realistic and it is relatable. And for all of those reasons, it becomes a great watch.
Image Credit: YouTube screengrab
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.