Gunjan Saxena-The Kargil Girl
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi
Director: Sharan Sharma
Early on in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, our protagonist, at age 9, gets a taste of what is to come when she shares with her brother that she wants to be a pilot. “Girls don’t become pilots,” he says, mocking her dream, then offers that she could be an airhostess though.
At the age of 24, Gunjan Saxena became India’s first female Air Force officer to fly in a combat zone during the 1999 Kargil War, taking part in risky operations to evacuate hundreds of soldiers. There is no way to fully grasp the significance of that achievement without being reminded that at the time the Air Force was the exclusive bastion of men – there weren’t even separate toilets or a changing room for women. Gunjan’s inspiring story, which is one of battling patriarchy, finding inner strength, and understanding the meaning of patriotism, is treated with respect and admirable restraint in this film from first-time director Sharan Sharma.
Janhvi Kapoor plays Gunjan with the fragility and vulnerability you’d expect of a young girl who has a dream but is completely unprepared for what it entails. Almost as soon as she utters the words that she wants to fly, she is made aware of every reason why she shouldn’t…or can’t. It isn’t the system alone that makes it hard for her; her brother (Angad Bedi) thinks it’s an unsafe career choice, even her mother is vociferously disapproving.
Gunjan’s constant ally is her ex-Army man father Anup (Pankaj Tripathi) who tries to find the way around a problem every time her dream hits a roadblock. Their bond is the film’s strongest track. Pankaj plays Anup as inherently fair and wise; he imbues him with decency and kindness. Anup has a gentle but persuasive manner, and Pankaj plays him with such understated flair you have a smile each time he’s on screen. In one of the film’s best scenes when a defeated Gunjan considers abandoning her dream and ‘settling down’, he points out that in doing so she’d be doing exactly what the world expects of girls. He delivers the film’s feminist message when he says the shackles put upon women are a cage that must be broken.
The scenes at the IAF base where Gunjan experiences casual sexism, full-blown discrimination, and bullying are indicative of just how deep-set the patriarchy problem is. Vineet Kumar Singh is in good form as the chauvinistic Flight Commander who, in pointing out that she is physically weaker than her male counterparts, declares that their responsibility is to protect the country, not to create equal opportunities. As a stern but fair Commanding Officer who puts Gunjan through her paces Manav Vij makes his moments count.
Sharan and his co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra eschew the sort of chest-thumping jingoism that is inevitably written into our patriotic films. In an excellent scene Gunjan tells her father that the Air Force needs cadets who are patriots, but she just wants to fly planes. Does that make her a traitor? It is the thoughtful response she receives – I won’t spoil it for you – that could well be construed as the mantra for this film too.
In a clever screenplay decision, the writers decide not to make the film about the war. This is a film about a woman who shattered the glass ceiling, and they choose to focus on the human story. The film’s final act, in which Gunjan carries out her first mission, is competently staged with sweeping chopper shots and aerial views of the compromised terrain. But the ‘action’ is limited to understanding the choices she made and the risks she took in the name of duty.
Janhvi Kapoor, in only her third screen role, puts her rawness to good use, making it a part of the character. Gunjan Saxena was no hero when she went into the Air Force or into Kargil. She was a young girl filled with self-doubt, driven only by her passion. The writers never give her lofty, self-aggrandizing lines, and the film is better for it.
In the end, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a simple, straightforward film powered by impressive performances from Janhvi Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi. Its real victory is in telling a hugely inspiring story of chasing one’s dream and overcoming all odds, without fuss or flash. There were moments in the film I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat. I recommend that you make the time for it.