In a key scene from Sharan Sharma's Netflix Original film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Janhvi Kapoor's titular character asks her father (Pankaj Tripathi) if she is committing treason by joining the Indian Air Force despite not being a patriot. He assures her she will never be a gaddar (traitor) as long as she remains honest and faithful to her work, which she already is.
Gunjan Saxena eventually becomes the first IAF woman officer to go to war, at Kargil in 1998.
This conflict that once hindered Saxena's historical rise also rings true, to a certain extent, for Janhvi. She has been in the eye of the storm that has become pervasive particularly after Sushant Singh Rajput's death by suicide a couple of months ago. Along with a few others associated with Karan Johar's Dharma Productions, Janhvi has been targeted for being a poster girl of nepotism, an evil that plagues the Hindi film industry.
Janhvi Kapoor in a still from Dhadak
Daughter of late legendary actress Sridevi and producer Boney Kapoor, Janhvi has often acknowledged her privilege as a star kid who could enjoy access to a relatively more convenient debut in Shashank Khaitan's 2018 romantic film Dhadak, backed by Dharma Productions. She also has an enviable line-up of films ahead, including Hardik Mehta's horror comedy Roohi Afzana, Colin D'Cunha's romantic comedy Dostana 2, and Johar's period drama Takht (albeit, all dependent on how the industry will bounce back post the pandemic).
While she received mixed reviews in Dhadak, it was difficult to question the sincerity with which she played a girl far removed from her social strata. She was remarkably impressive in Zoya Akhtar's short film in Netflix Original anthology Ghost Stories earlier this year. But in Gunjan Saxena, she is possibly in every frame of the biographical drama. It will not be a stretch to say she has silenced many of her naysayers with quiet perseverance and sincere approach to her craft.
The combination of her signature nervous energy and simmering brilliance works to her advantage here as it reflects the approach the real-life Gunjan Saxena had to her job. Saxena has claimed that she aspired to be a pilot to such a degree that the gender discrimination against her by the defence infrastructure and male superiors/peers failed to bog her down. Janhvi's nonchalant demeanour sums up Saxena's approach, which she says was immune to the regular obstacles encountered by a woman whenever she tries to break into a male-dominated territory. Janhvi's inspired creative choice reminds me of Sridevi's in Gauri Shinde's 2013 slice-of-life film English Vinglish. The veteran actress' quivering voice and unassured body language fit perfectly into the role of Shashi Godbole, a Marathi woman aspiring to learn English in order to gain more respect among her family.
The fact that Janhvi is compared to her mother even if she pulls off strikingly original performances will definitely be an albatross around her neck. Though that may not amount to the sacrifices and years of endless patience that go into penetrating the film industry for that elusive first break, it can certainly not be disregarded as a factor she has only benefited from.
To quote a scene from Gunjan Saxena, Janhvi's character feels disillusioned when she is rejected in her medical examination to the IAF because of a 'permanent disability' and a 'temperament disability.' She is given a buffer period of two weeks after which she can reapply, though the chances of a candidate getting selected despite a permanent disability are bleak. Saxena loses hope before she gets a pep talk from her father who tells her " "Kismat unka hath nahi chhodti jo mehnat ka sath nahi chhodte" (Luck favours those who work hard).
Janhvi has often admitted that she will have to work much harder to prove her mettle since she started from a compromised position. Her struggle to get into the skin of her character is not documented either on social media or through a montage in a behind-the-scenes video. But the finished product speaks volumes of the ceaseless gruelling she must have undergone, in her unspoken fashion, hoping it would prompt the audience to overlook her 'permanent disability.'
In the film, Saxena follows the 'Rekha diet' to lose the extra kilos and overcome a 'temporary disability' to join the Air Force. The inspiration comes from a film magazine that mentions Rekha, the yesteryear actress, followed a strict diet and workout regime to get into the shape required for her dream role. Rekha, daughter of celebrated Tamil actor Gemini Ganeshan and Telugu actress Pushpavalli, was also on the receiving end of unmitigated outrage at the start of her career, before she made a name for herself. Her reputation now far precedes her lineage.
A similar parallel can be drawn between Janhvi and Alia Bhatt, who was (and still is) labelled a product of nepotism, since her father Mahesh Bhatt is a renowned filmmaker and mother Soni Razdan is an actress. When Alia debuted with Johar's 2012 campus caper Student of the Year, her talent and casting choice were questioned. Matters got worse when she named the country's president incorrectly during an episode of Koffee with Karan. It became her Achilles' heel, till she stole the show in Imtiaz Ali's 2014 film Highway and cracked a joke on her limited general knowledge through a sketch collaboration with All India Bakchod.
Gunjan Saxena also offers a similar argument of why a fish's potential should not be determined by its ability to climb a tree. Rather than vomiting crammed up statements about India's burning political issues, Saxena chooses to talk about what she knows best " the controversy around a film song which released earlier that year. Impressed by her originality and frankness, her examiners in the Personal Interview round show Saxena a green flag, allowing her to qualify into the final round.
Similarly, later in the film, Saxena tells her superiors and peers that she will not give up after she was defeated in a string of arm wrestling challenges by a male pilot. She reminds them that she excels in the job that the IAF demands from her, i.e., flying, instead of physical strength, that is not a major criterion to make the cut in the air force.
Like her reel counterpart, Janhvi seems to be on the right track as far as honing her craft is concerned. Her determination hasn't been drowned out by the noise of nepotism allegations around her.
Though her upcoming projects will also stand that test, she has made the right choice by responding to the criticism through her work, and not through her words. Rather than whining about how unfair the surround sound and non-conducive the environment have been to her, she has acknowledged that the industry operates to make money, and not to offer her more chances on a platter; just like how Saxena's superior (Manav Vij) tells her that the IAF exists to defend the nation, and not treat "the first woman officer" with equality.
Earlier in the film, during the entrance procedure, there are two rounds where the candidate is asked to jump " one, across a pit using a rope, and the other, outside the window of a tall building without any crutch. While the first test measures the faith of the candidate (which Saxena overcomes, much to her surprise), the other one challenges their wisdom. When Saxena is asked to jump, she does so on the spot rather than outside the window.
Similarly, Janhvi also has the wisdom to differentiate between fight and flight, when to take the leap and when not to, and when to take the battle head on and when to sidestep it wisely.
'Flight' here does not necessarily mean fear. In the case of Gunjan Saxena, during the entrance exam, when the examiner asks the candidates what the colour of the Ashok Chakra is, they respond that it is blue. When he firmly corrects them it is black, they nod in agreement. But Saxena intervenes and asserts that the colour is indeed blue, not giving in to the fear of her superior.
Hard work, tenacity, sincerity, wisdom, and confidence are all key to one's success when the odds are stacked against one, like in the case of both Saxena and Janhvi. But what also holds major significance is one's core, and the belief to not sway from that.
Ahead of the release of Ghost Stories, Zoya Akhtar told this writer she signed Janhvi for her short only because of her 'core.' "A lot of actresses could have done it. But for that role, I wanted someone who's pernicious and coquettish, and at the same time, a nurturer like those who nurse the elderly. I saw in the audition that Janhvi had that core, and she stuck to it."
When the core is as strong, all the surrounding noise fails to penetrate the force field. But a scene in Gunjan Saxena shows why it is important to voice one's dissent against the discrimination. Saxena reaches the saturation point while at the academy and blasts at her male superiors/peers. "You don't want me to excel, not because I'm weak. But because you're scared and insecure (of my growth)," she says, possibly echoing what every person going against the tide has to combat.
With Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Janhvi has made herself heard. It is true that she will have to justify her position time and again, but for now, she can enjoy the flight she has longed " and toiled " for.
All images from Twitter.