Kathmandu- The film begins with a display of panic among the Indian army induced by the commander-in-chief being informed about an urgent need for an airforce officer for a rescue mission. Seconds later, the screen moves in slow motion and we see the protagonist of the film- Gunjan Saxena.
A biopic of India’s first female combat aviator and an officer who flew helicopter missions in the 1999 Kargil War, this movie, directed by Sharan Sharma and co-written by Nihil Mehrotra, is opposite the usual triteness of high-pitched nationalist Bollywood movies.
What sets this movie apart from other so-called patriotic movies is that instead of displaying hypernationalist sentiments, it shows Gunjan’s dreams and goals to be her own person. The movie depicts not only the professional struggles and odds that she overcame in order to become an Indian Air Force officer, but also the personal hardships she went through in the process of chasing her dreams in a patriarchal and sexist society.
Although Gunjan Saxena won glory for her role during a war against Pakistan, the movie refrains from including loud plaudits to Mother India, satire on Pakistanis or involving obvious dialogues about the “dushman desh” (enemy country). The writers have consistently shown war scenes to resemble procedure rather than the glorification of characters as heroes. This film serves as a reminder that defense personnel are just as human as those working in any other profession.
Many Hindi movies have exemplified the sexual violence that women face but not many of them show the specific challenges a woman faces in a deeply sexist and patriarchal society- including social conditioning in their career choices, discrimination they face in the work place and the subtle misogyny that society makes sure to include in their every choice.
Written by an all-men team and based on extensive details provided by Gunjan Saxena herself, the film shows us how we don’t really need to be oppressed in order to understand the concerns of marginalized groups. All we need is to empathize and listen without judgment or prejudice, and without trying to add our own perspectives to someone else’s problems.
The film’s focal point revolves around the casual sexism that Gunjan experiences from her colleagues, be it them refusing to fly with her because they don’t see her capable enough of flying or the institution not having a women’s washroom because the place wasn’t originally built for women.
Flight-commanding officer, Dileep Singh, played by Vineet Singh, is depicted as the antagonist of the film, because of the way he treats Saxena with his rudeness. In one instance, he makes her arm wrestle with him just to prove that she doesn’t belong in an all men’s institution.
At the same time, we see Saxena’s father, played by Panaj Tripathi, providing a pivotal role in helping and supporting his daughter’s dreams. In a defining moment, Saxena discusses her career plans with her father. “Dad, the Air Force needs cadets who are patriots, but I just want to fly planes.
In a bid to fulfill my dream, am I being a traitor to the country?” The opposite of treachery is sincerity, her father reminds her. “If you do your work sincerely, you cannot possibly betray the country. You become a good pilot with sincerity and hard work, and you will automatically be a patriot.”
The movie depicts men playing a bigger role in Saxena’s life than women. With only two women who hold some significance in Saxena’s life, neither of them are shown being supportive of her dreams. Her mother, for instance, is constantly shown refusing and not acknowledging her daughter’s dreams and aspirations.
Although we can confidently say that women do find allies in men around them, the lack of female allies in this movie might be concerning. It should be noted that Saxena was among the first batch of females recruited by the Air Force. Sreevidya Rajan, a fellow female officer accompanying Saxena during the Kargil War, and whose story could have been added to the battles that females face in trying to make a name in a male dominated profession, is completely left out of the movie.
Janhvi Kapoor, although still lacking the spark needed to grab the audiences’ attention, has shown growth in her acting. However, the actress who faced criticism for her first role in the movie ‘Dhadak,’ is certainly a good fit to bring Saxena’s story to life. Pankaj Tripathi adds a very calm and warm effect on the screen with his presence which can be attributed to his experience as a veteran actor.
Lastly, the movie never shies away from depicting the human condition even during war scenes. Although Gunjan Saxena is a movie about one remarkable woman, it also celebrates every other remarkable woman that has ever lived to face odds and only emerge from them stronger.
Movie: Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Starring: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Vineet Singh
Director: Sharan Sharma
Rose Singh is a law student at Kathmandu School of Law. She previously interned at The Kathmandu Post. Find her tweet at @_rosesingh