The film makes you uncomfortable and emotional without obnoxious jingoism that’s common in army films.

Janhvi Kapoor in blue overalls IAF uniform as Gunjan Saxena The Kargil Girl filmScreengrab/Netflix
Flix Review Wednesday, August 12, 2020 - 19:23
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In an ideal world, anyone can aspire to be anything. Some progressive families try to treat their children equally, irrespective of gender. But the world, more often than not, does not agree. A child, who was told she could soar, finds herself in a predicament when she learns that the society around her doesn’t think so. She fights back, but she is no superwoman – how many times must she prove herself despite being able?

Many women would relate to this story. In a society that defines roles for us almost from the minute we are born, the struggle to swim against the tide can be difficult, exhausting and continuing forever. And the Janhvi Kapoor-starrer Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl does an efficient job of showing that without unnecessary angst or chest-thumping. Based on the real life story of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, who was India’s first combat officer in the Indian Air Force, the film released on Netflix on August 12.

Directed by Sharan Sharma, the film focuses on Gunjan, who has her eyes on the skies and dreams of flying a plane from a young age. Riva Arora, who has also shared the screen with Janhvi’s late mother, actor Sridevi in Mom, plays young Gunjan convincingly, who, despite being mocked to aspire to be a stewardess instead, wears sunglasses at home to emulate a pilot she met.

As she grows up, there are many more hurdles to her wanting to become a pilot – some of them are rooted in finances, others in red tape, but most initially come from within her own home, from her brother, Anshuman (Angad Bedi) who has himself joined the army, and her mother, Kirti Saxena (Ayesha Raza Mishra), because Gunjan is a woman. However, it is refreshing and surprising to see a very calm and composed Pankaj Tripathi, who plays Gunjan’s father Anup Saxena, support his daughter’s dreams throughout.

One of the most remarkable contrasts that the film brings to light is just how men can use their privilege to either be allies or bullies to women.

In contrast to Anup’s understated and steady support for his daughter, we see the discrimination, mockery, casual as well as explicit misogyny that Gunjan faces at the hands of her colleagues and seniors when she finally gets selected to train at the Udhampur IAF base. The only woman at the base, she is excluded from training simply because no one wants to fly with a woman (“what if she starts crying on a sortie?”). She is denied opportunity because her peers’ fragile masculinity is threatened by having a woman in their midst (“turn from here else we’ll have to salute a woman”). There are many such examples, and all of them despite Gunjan being one of the top pilots in skill in her batch. However, because she is a woman, her ability is not enough.

Pankaj Tripathi shines as Anup, as an example of just how men can use their social capital to make space for women. In fact, the film is also co-written by two men – director Sharan and Nikhil Mehrotra. Anup is the de facto head of the house by virtue of being a man, and he uses this gently, to quietly but firmly support Gunjan despite opposition from Anshuman and Kirti. This makes the flight of her dreams a tad bit easier despite the numerous challenges she faces, including being penalised for just being a woman in a male-dominated space where she is clearly unwelcome. She does find an ally in a senior officer eventually, but for most people – regardless of gender – parental support can play a pivotal role in pushing back against social pressures and chasing their dreams. And Gunjan Saxena succeeds in showing how this intersects with gender for women.

While Janhvi doesn’t have the gravitas of Pankaj Tripathi quite yet, she makes an earnest protagonist, and lends charm and a youthful determination to Gunjan’s character. Even in the war scenes, we see her vulnerability and the weight of having to prove herself, come through. The real Gunjan was only 24 after all, when she went on to serve in the Kargil war in 1999. The war scenes themselves are not glorified, but are almost clinical, focusing more on the characters than the grandiose event.

Another commendable aspect of the film is that despite it being a story about the IAF, and ultimately about the Kargil war, it remains on the side of patriotism, not crossing the line to become jingoism. In this aspect, Gunjan Saxena is comparable to Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal’s Raazi which also successfully conveys patriotism with soulful music and vulnerability, not going into flashy displays of nationalism. In Gunjan Saxena, even the scenes where the male officers exclude her on the pretext of her “safety” as a woman and “national security”, this differentiation is maintained. This is refreshing to watch, especially in the currently polarised political climate where being “anti-national” is often used as an attack on dissent. There is no chest-thumping or swelling music to celebrate love for the country in the film, proving that these displays aren’t necessarily proof of it.

It must be noted however that apart from Gunjan, there are no real female characters in the film. Her mother Kirti’s character is not hashed out too well and could have been written better to match the depth of Anup’s. Even the women who come for the selection process to become the first women IAF pilots (Gunjan is the only who gets selected) are shown as caricaturish. Interestingly, there was another woman pilot with real Gunjan in the IAF - Srividya Rajan. She and Gunjan became the first Indian women to fly the Cheetah helicopter to evacuate injured soldiers. This much was documented by NDTV at the time as well. It would have been interesting to see Srividya represented in the film; to watch her and Gunjan's dynamic and perhaps allyship in the male dominated space. 

The film also left me wanting to see more of Gunjan’s victory. It ends with her first successful rescue mission to get injured soldiers out of a Kargil war zone. However, the film says at the end that the flight lieutenant went on to carry out 40 more successful missions. After seeing Janhvi as Gunajn work so hard to get there, it would have been good to see more of her glory too.

Incidentally, the IAF wrote to the censor board on Wednesday over “negative portrayal” of the IAF in the movie. IAF has said that it is “gender neutral and has always provided an equal opportunity to both male and women personnel.” Though the film begins with a disclaimer that this is a dramatised version, the real Gunjan found the film to portray her journey well.

Gunjan Saxena makes you uncomfortable, but if you’re a woman, chances are you’ve already felt it when you’ve found yourself in male-dominated spaces. And to make this unique story relatable is an achievement of the film.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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