Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Vineet Kumar
Director: Sharan Sharma
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Two wars unfold in Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl. The one on the India-Pakistan border leads the film to its climax; the other rages on the gender divide frontline practically all the way through. Both push the titular heroine to the brink as she fights to find her feet in a male preserve. But she hangs in there, propelled by her willpower and a father who helps her keep the headwinds at bay.
The spry biopic, bolstered by a brilliant Pankaj Tripathi and a passably steady Janhvi Kapoor, flies light. It adopts an unfussy approach to the two-pronged real-life drama that drives home the magnitude of the struggle of India’s first female combat pilot. It is the 1990s. Gunjan Saxena is a middle-class Lucknow girl who aspires to be a commercial pilot. She gravitates towards the Indian Air Force. Her battle is as much about soaring above the mundane as about holding her ground. Neither is a cakewalk.
Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl, a Netflix original film scripted by Dangal co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra and directed by debutant Sharan Sharma, is definitely one of the better true stories to emerge from excess-prone Bollywood. Its take-offs are smooth and its landings steady. It averts overplaying its hand as it delineates the big and small conflicts in the protagonist’s life. It rings emotionally true.
Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl distils all the drama that it can out of a career that in reality was a probably a painstaking grind. Gunjan Saxena (Janhvi Kapoor) was after all flying in the face of decades of prejudice and breaking new ground.
Every key sequence has some manner of conflict – and, of course, the heroine’s dream – at its heart. This enables the unusually subdued reenactment of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena’s life – the narrative spans 15 years, from 1984 to 1999, the year the Kargil War erupted – to highlight her fight against outright hostility and soul-crushing condescension without having to scramble for effect at the business end of the film.
In Scene One, nine-year-old Gunjan (played by Riva Arora) pleads for the window seat on a passenger flight but her drowsy elder brother (Aryan Arora) refuses to vacate it. An airhostess escorts the girl to the cockpit so that she can see the open sky. Later in the film, exasperated by the treatment the boys at the Udhampur Air Force Station subject her to, Gunjan nearly turns her back on her career. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel Anup Saxena (Pankaj Tripathi), steps in to guide her out of the trough.
Gunjan gets nothing on a platter. Whether she applies for a seat in a flying school, seeks to break into the Air Force or ease herself into a job that no woman has done before, she faces obstacles and delays. The Air Force base where she is sent does not have a ladies’ room nor a private space where she can change into her overalls before a sortie. The more vital scenes, which play out within limited spans and serve specific purposes, contain hints of a way forward.
Resistance begins at home for Gunjan and then takes on dispiriting dimensions in the world outside. Her mother (Ayesha Raza Mishra) hopes that her daughter will one day outgrow her obsession with flying and go to college and acquire a conventional degree. Gunjan’s well-meaning but casually sexist brother, Anshuman Saxena (Angad Bedi), who is also a soldier, tries everything he can to deflect her from her chosen path.
Dada, I want to be pilot, Gunjan, still a child, says at the breakfast table. Her elder brother’s riposte reflects his conditioned thinking. I want to be Kapil Dev, he jokes, adding that girls do not become pilots. You can only be a cabin crew-member, he tells his sister dismissively. Her role as a girl is constantly defined for Gunjan. An instructor at the Air Force Academy barks at her: Air Force join karna hai toh fauji banke dikhao warna ghar jaake belan chalao (If you want to join the Air Force prove that you are a soldier or else go home and take care of the kitchen).
The belan (rolling pin) is a metaphor that surfaces tangentially in a subsequent ‘turning point’ scene in which her father challenges her to show him that she can make parathas when Gunjan suggests that she wants out. This sequence instantly establishes what kind of man her dad is – while he himself is fully equipped to rustle up parathas if need be, he talks his daughter out of the temptation to abandon her dreams and “settle down”.
The film may be faulted on two counts. One, some of the scenes at the Udhampur IAF station, where a bunch of boys led by Wing Commander Dileep Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) makes life difficult for the newbie, are not as subtle as the conversations in the Saxena household. And two, the protagonist is never allowed to fly ‘solo’. She needs men to help her tide over the challenges thrown at her – besides her ever-supportive father, who stands behind her like a rock, there is Commanding Officer Gautam Sinha (Manav Vij), who spots the spark in Gunjan and stands up for her when the wind isn’t blowing in her favour.
It is another matter that the paterfamilias (as interpreted by a delightfully on the nose Pankaj Tripathi) contributes the most in lending Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl its distinctively subdued feel. At first flush, it might be a tad difficult to accept Tripathi as an Army officer. It however takes the exceptionally gifted actor next to no time to sink his teeth into the role and dispel any misgivings the audience might have regarding his suitability for the role.
Tripathi’s natural, low-key, conversational tone, which he sustains all through the film, serves as the spine of the drama. He is the sounding board for Janhvi Kapoor, who at times struggles to find the right median. The screenplay demands too much from her by way of emotive range. The actress is as old as the onscreen character she plays and that stands her in good stead.
Barring one shrill confrontation scene (she blows her top at the male pilots for partying late into the night and disturbing her sleep after she has been publicly humiliated for the umpteenth time earlier in the day) she stays within a limited bandwidth. She is at once an ingenue and a resolute girl, both wide-eyed and single-minded, and generally relatable.
Angad Bedi, Vineet Kumar Singh (in a special appearance) and Manav Vij are perfectly in tune with the low-throttle film. Ayesha Raza Mishra is terrific as the mother who frets over her daughter’s choices but is acutely aware of the cost of frittering away opportunities. Wish the film had room for more of her.
Bollywood biopics have the tendency to turn into overheated fiction. This ne does not. The reason is tucked unobtrusively into the text of the film. In one key scene, Gunjan admits that she is joining the Air Force only because she loves flying and not owing to a patriotic urge. “I hope I’m not being a traitor in trying to fulfil my dream,” she asks her dad. The Air Force, the Lieutenant Colonel sagely replies, doesn’t need cadets who shout Bharat Mata ki jai but passionate personnel who do their jobs with honesty.
Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl spares us the spectacle of ungainly chest-thumping. What it gives us instead, and without too much showy flapping of the wings, is a good old touching tale of a girl who dared to break free from her cage and fly away – a heroine we can cheer without resorting to a blood-curdling war cry.