Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a Film that Makes Your Heart Soar

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If there’s one thing that Gunjan Saxena is absolutely sure of, it’s that she wants to fly planes. It’s the only thing she’s ever wanted to do. She could care less about having general knowledge about the state of affairs in the country; instead of important dates and events, her general knowledge on India is restricted to Toffy, the pomeranian in Hum Apke Hai Koun and how a majority of Indians imported poms after watching the film. She dreams of flying, and if the only way she can do it is to join the Indian Air Force, then so be it. Her passion for flying inspires her to perform things that she is constantly told she cannot: train for the army, pilot an air force jet, and save men from battlefields.

She also shows us how true love for one’s country is portrayed by simply doing your job, and doing it with sincerity and honesty.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is directed by Sharan Sharma, with a screenplay written by Nikhil Malhotra and Sharran Kumar. Starring Janhavi Kapoor as Gunjan, Pankaj Tripathi as her father, Angad Bedi as her brother, Ayesha Raaz Mishra, Vineet Kumar Singh and Manav Vij in supporting roles, the film depicts the life of the first ever female IAF pilot, and how the men and women around her make her who she is.

The film wins because instead of being yet another chest-thumping, masculine-roaring scream of nationalism and ‘desh bhakti’, it shows us how the most personal lives can be the most patriotic. In one striking scene from the film, right before Gunjan is to join IAF school, she sits with her father in the middle of the night to reveal her fear. She tells him that she isn’t some ‘desh bhakt’ who is in this to fight for her nation; she simply wants to fly. Does this make her a traitor to India? Pankaj Tripathi, who plays her father in a role that is both sensitive and calm, tells her softly that ‘desh bhakti’ isn’t about shouting slogans at the top of one’s voice or jingoism of any kind. It’s simply the act of doing your job with utmost sincerity. In the scenes to follow, Gunjan steps forth in front of her senior officers with a “Jai Hind,” which feels natural and even peaceful. In current times when our country is plagued with violent nationalism and “Jai Hind” is screamed by mobs parading through streets, it is a pleasant change to hear an air force pilot say it without any dramatic jana gana music playing in the background.

When Gunjan says “Jai Hind,” we all swell with pride along with her.

Because the central point of the movie isn’t to be about the story of a larger nation; it’s about one person who has influenced the nation in a positive way. The movie knows its central plot point and sticks with it the whole time. Here is a woman who is passionate about flying and who will do anything to make her dreams come true. It sure is not an easy one, especially in 1998 when there were no other women in the Indian Air Force. Gunjan faced, time and again, belittlement by her senior commanding officers. Ostracised by the ‘boys club’ at the school who drank and partied together, Gunjan was a threat to the men and their masculinity. If they gave her any flying hours at all, if they took commands from her while she piloted aircrafts, then there would be the very legitimate fear that “woh madam se sir banegi”. It’s hilarious that currently the IAF is fuming at how the film antagonises the body and makes it seem like it creates a hostile, unequal space, because that was exactly the case. The least the IAF can do now is not be hypocritical and acknowledge their past errors.

It is inspiring to see Gunjan spring back, time and time again, after being silenced or stopped from flying. The part of movies which we all love, when the protagonist gets back on her feet and pursues what she believes in, is portrayed with authenticity and humility towards the Air Force pilot in this film. Except it’s not at one moment that Gunjan has to prove herself and then they all believe her. It is a receurring thing; starting with her dominating brother when she was younger who wanted her to do what ‘girls’ do, her mother and relatives who wanted her to study and not fly, her male peers at IAF academy who were envious of her, her senior officer who was threatened by her, her brother and officer once again at the Kargil War. Her father’s voice, however, remains a confident, loving one. Pankaj Tripathi is remarkable as a progressive father who loves his daughter enough to let her go.

As for Janhvi Kapoor, I admit that there needs to be a bit more ‘zing’ in her performance, and at times her expression can be rather flat and lifeless. However, her comic timing and the funny scenes from the film reminded me of a younger Sridevi, whose inherent knowledge of comedy shone brightly in her movies. Kapoor is clearly a hard worker; she gets the basic emotions right: joy, pride, sadness, loss, anger etc. However, the one thing lacking in her performance, the zing (if I may) is her ability to infuse life into Saxena. All in all, it was a job well done.

Sharan Sharma has directed a movie that is just as comedic as it is thrilling, just as feminist as it is heart-warming. Gunjan is a fantastic character, an inspiration to us all, but she’s also rather quirky and funny in her own way, in her own passion to make her dreams come true. Her father is a feminist while her brother is regressively patriarchal, representing the younger Indian men who are threatened by their female counterparts being their equals. It is their responsibility to ‘protect’ their sisters. In a nice moment towards the end of the film, Gunjan’s brother humbly admits that she is the one who needs to protect him. The daunting task of being surrounded by so-called ‘tough’ military men is made apparent through well written scenes at the IAF academy. Gunjan’s role during the Kargil War makes for an exciting, thrilling narrative. The only criticism would be that the war was not adequately represented, as soldiers on ground and civilians at home stressfully watching the news is a rather stereotypical image we have of it.

Watch Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl to experience a feminist film that shuns all jingoism and loud nationalism aside (Uri was a disappointment in that way), to show us that true love for one’s country remains in simply doing one’s job; no fanaticism required. If the real Gunjan Saxena is the reason why more than 1600 women are in the IAF today, then this film is doing a good job of paying their respects to the hero that she is. Music composed by John Stewart Eduri is subtle and enjoyable, and thankfully include any “vande mataram” background scores every time Gunjan wears her air force uniform or when she saves her fellow soldiers. Amit Trivedi’s songs are accurate representations of who Gunjan is: fun, determined, and passionate. The same three words can be used to describe the whole movie as well.

We live in a time where biopics are the new black in Bollywood. As I said in my review of Shakuntala Devi, they often make for poorly made movies, made simply for the purpose of the lead actor winning awards. However, while Shakuntala Devi was about too many things in particular to be about the genius of the mathematician, Gunjan Saxena retains its authenticity by keeping its story limited to the first female fighter pilot’s love for flying, and how that inspires her to fight do it all, from looking out at the sky to steering the plane that whizzes through it. And just like that plane, your hearts will soar while watching this movie.

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