Synopsis – Inspired by the life of a fearless young officer who made history by becoming the first Indian female Air Force officer to fly in a combat zone during the 1999 Kargil War.
My Take – With Bollywood biopics comes a certain trend, where filmmakers tend to over include cinematic liberties in order to simplify the screenplay for the audience, a trend that was also visible in the recently released Shakuntala Devi, which despite muddling in emotional waters and switching around its timelines, did no justice to the genius personality it was portraying.
Thankfully, Sharan Sharma, who marks his directorial debut after filling up his filmography with assisting jobs on Dharma Production‘s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, sticks to a more a simpler story to document his distinctive titular figure, the first woman air force officer of India, and her struggles.
Most importantly, despite having the armed Kargil conflict in the background, and releasing on a date coinciding with India’s 73 year old Independence, it spares us the spectacle of ungainly chest-thumping. And instead gives us a good old touching tale of a young woman who dared to dream and found her way through all attacks of institutionalized sexism to live her dream on a canvas where her dreams marry a patriotic accomplishment. All the while paying an inspiring ode to all women in general, and motivating them to break the barriers of gender stereotypes, which continue to be upheld, for some reason, in the Asian and Middle East cultures.
Sure, the film cannot be deemed flawless, and yet irrespective of the current controversy surrounding Karan Johar (the co-producer of the film) and his hand in promoting nepotism, the film deserves appreciation for its sincerity in its direction and efficient performances. And since it has found its release on Netflix, I personally found it to be a missed theatrical watch, as the film is a perfect pick to appreciate all the working women out there, who have been silently fighting their own battle every day for decades, just to achieve their goals.
The story follows Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor), who from a very young age has been fascinated with planes and is determined to become a commercial pilot. But at home cajoling to her wishes remains an uphill task. Despite scoring good grades, her mother (Ayesha Raza Mishra) remains against it, and instead dreams of her settling down like any Indian girl belonging to a good family, while her older brother, Anshuman (Angad Bedi), an army officer himself, discourages her as well in the name of safety, but, her father, retired Lieutenant Colonel Anup Saxena (Pankaj Tripathi), has completely supports her decision.
While her dreams of flying initially seem to go waste when she finds out that her family can’t afford the fees to flight school, Anup nudges her to join the Air-Force instead, to which she agrees while remaining oblivious to the long list of struggles coming her way, in the form of Fight commander officer Dileep Singh (Viineet Kumar Singh), gender discrimination and the impending Kargil war.
Without a doubt, director Sharan Sharma makes an impactful debut where he explains the discrimination with due honesty. The screenplay, co-written by Nikhil Mehrotra (Dangal), at times resembles a low-key sports drama about an underdog’s long crawl to the finishing line, especially in the flashback portions, where Gunjan’s determination and commitment during her training, are filled with incremental victories. Here, director Sharan Sharma use these moments smartly to emphasize that the story they are telling belongs to a woman and her passion, not the air force job that she happened to get, as part of her childhood dream of being a pilot.
But stripped of its backdrop, the film emerges as an account of everyday workplace sexism. Swap Gunjan’s uniform for a suit and the barracks for a boardroom and the film is equally an exploration of women taking crucial steps in all-male worlds despite being tripped ever so often. As the first woman on the base, she’s ostracized and condescended to by her fellow officers. She misses her flight training several times as there isn’t a women’s bathroom and she has nowhere to change.
Even when Gunjan tries to talk to a group of officers at a party, they walk away from her one by one, and with one officer pointing out about what he would do if she starts crying during an emergency, all trying to get out of flying with her. Add to that the sexist jokes that are being thrown around casually, the film catches the breath of casual sexism wonderfully. It is in these moments that the film is at its best, both narrative and in its performances.
There is a general air of sobriety in the film and there are no heavy-duty action sequences or heroics. The tensions are more personal. This makes the film somewhat bland as a biopic. But it does successfully convey the struggle of a doughty girl who wants to be in a profession largely dominated by men. Her single-minded determination, laced with moments of self-doubt and despair, are brought out effectively.
This is also a film not interested in people as complex beings. Instead, it deploys each character either as an outright detractor or cheerleader for Gunjan. Her father is unconditionally supportive, while her brother remains dismissive of her even after she becomes an officer. All the men on the base keep her at arm’s length; not one of them is shown as vaguely sympathetic. The sight of a woman striving to excel in a made-for-men bastion and being forced to watch her every move takes the film beyond its armed forces setting and into the civilian world.
However, I was not left satisfied with the Kargil sequences. Gunjan, having never flown a combat mission before, finds herself at the center of a dangerous helicopter rescue, with an Indian Army platoon stranded and under fire. The sequence, lasts only 8 minutes, a rather small amount of time to dedicate to the film’s most dramatic incident and only war scene. It feels hurried and truncated and not entirely convincing.
Coming to the performances, leaving aside the nepotism battle and all the social media bashing, I personally found Janhvi Kapoor‘s quiet, unassuming performance quite refreshing. Sure, she has a long way to go, but she manages to be convincing as the 24-year-old Gunjan. Especially in the emotional sequences. The tears of joy in her eyes when she gets selected for the Indian Air Force feel as real as the tears in her eyes when she faces her first rejection. Janhvi captures our attention whenever she is on the screen.
Pankaj Tripathi is simply endearing in his simple, soft portrayal of a loving father, who never differentiates between his son and his daughter. His presence is a delight on the screen and you cannot help but laugh some times and cry the other. In other roles, Ayesha Raza Mishra, Vineet Kumar Singh, Angad Bedi, and Manav Vij also deliver admirable performances. On the whole, ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ is an inspiring biopic uplifted by its simple script and towering performances.
Directed – Sharan Sharma
Rated – TV14
Run Time – 110 minutes