In a defining scene in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, young Ms Saxena sits discussing 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?"
(>Minor spoiler alert) The opposite of treachery is sincerity, the father reminds her, so if she does her work sincerely, she cannot possibly betray the country. "Do you think the Air Force wants people who shout 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai'?" he asks. "They want cadets who have a goal, passion and who will complete their training with hard work and sincerity because they are the cadets who will go on to become the best officers and give the country their best. You become a good pilot with sincerity and hard work, and you will automatically be a patriot." (>Spoiler alert ends)
In another country or in another age in India, this may have been just a sweet exchange between a supportive father and his daughter. In India 2020 though, where "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" (Hail Mother India) has been weaponised for use against religious minorities and liberals at large, the scene is a sample of brilliant and brave writing. In one fell swoop, it takes down those who have mined love for the country - and this slogan in particular - as an excuse to violently attack the 'other' and also deflates the widespread insistence on romanticising the armed forces as the first destination of the patriot, an insistence long translated into an unwillingness to openly concede that what the defence services are for most young recruits is a practical, attractive career choice (and there's nothing wrong with that). The masterstroke though is that the character speaking these words is an Armyman - those who have long demanded a deification of the Army as proof of loyalty to India will be hard-pressed to counter him. The clincher is that this film is based on true events.
Gunjan Saxena is the biopic of India's first woman combat aviator, an officer who flew helicopter missions in the 1999 Kargil war.
Janhvi Kapoor plays the title role in the Gunjan Saxena biopic.
This is an unusual time to write a script on such a subject since nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism) has become a high-pitched, ear-splitting formula that Bollywood has regularly visited in the past six years.
Director Sharan Sharma's Gunjan Saxena is the polar opposite of such triteness: it is low key and gentle of voice.
The crowning glory of the real-life Flight Lieutenant Saxena's achievements came during a war against Pakistan, yet the film avoids loud chest-beating paeans to Mother India, the caricaturing of Pakistanis or dramatic dialogues about the "dushman desh" (enemy country). The writers, Nikhil Mehrotra, Sharma himself and Hussain Dalal (who is credited with additional dialogues) manage this by treating the war scenes almost like a procedural, which in itself is a quiet reminder that defence personnel in reality are human beings at work, not speechifying Hindi film heroes.
What makes Gunjan Saxena a full and complete contrast to the likes of Kesari and Padmaavat is that unlike those films, Sharma and his colleagues do not insinuate an equivalence between India's Muslims and the dushman desh.
Many Hindi films over the years have revolved around sexual violence, but rarely has one chronicled social conditioning in women's career choices, casual misogyny and extreme discrimination at the workplace with such accuracy and detail. Gunjan Saxena has been written by an all-male team, based on extensive interactions with Saxena, her family and others, which should tell you all you need to know about empathy: you do not have to belong to a marginalised social group to develop an understanding of their concerns, you just need to listen and observe without prejudice, condescension or the persecution complex that seems to afflict so many dominant groups worldwide.
Sharma, Mehrotra and Dalal have clearly listened - and well.
Of course this begs the question, why does Amit Trivedi's otherwise on-point, enjoyable soundtrack for Gunjan Saxena have male voices in the majority in an industry where this happens routinely even in films about women?
The script also foregrounds the men in Saxena's life, which is fine to the extent that as women we do find many allies among our male colleagues and relatives, but it is just as true that numerous women support other women although the public discourse would have you believe otherwise. Giving Saxena's father primacy in the script is fair enough since media reports have spoken of how he encouraged her to pursue her ambitions, but I did wonder why the film found no space for a woman ally.
There are only two women of any significance in the narrative, neither of them offers any moral support to the protagonist and as the trailer has already revealed, her mother actively pressures her not to fly. While the Mum's attitude is no doubt a faithful depiction of what happened in truth, (>minor spoiler ahead in this paragraph) she is noticeably not given an inner journey towards the acceptance she later abruptly displays, unlike Saxena's brother who too was shown to be discouraging and in whom we witness a natural progression towards a transformation. In fact, the writers ensure that every single recognisable male character in the narrative who severely discriminates against Saxena or traumatises her or does not speak up for her gets a moment of redemption. (>Spoiler alert ends)
Did the real Gunjan Saxena have no female allies? Perhaps this lacuna could have been plugged by fleshing out at least a couple of her women colleagues.
Saxena belonged to the first batch of women recruited to the Air Force when it opened its doors in the 1990s. (Note: the film's trailer is wrong in saying she was India's first woman IAF officer - she was among the first.) In fact, there was one other female officer, Sreevidya Rajan, with Saxena during the Kargil war, but so little is written in the media about both of them and the few available reports are so conflicting that it is hard to tell from the Internet precisely what Rajan's job profile was in Kargil. From a report filed by senior NDTV journalist Vishnu Som in the 1990s (a report that was the starting point of Sharma's research), it is clear that Saxena flew into combat zones. Material in the news media about Rajan's tasks during the war is elusive, she is not an identifiable character in the film either and for dramatic purposes, women personnel have been excluded completely from the training scenes at the Udhampur Air Force Station and from the war. The equation between Saxena and Rajan could have been a goldmine of insights into the dynamic between women jointly battling bias - erasing Rajan from the story is not just unjust to her, it robbed Gunjan Saxena of a crucial element in its conversation on gender politics.
Elaborating on these missing links could only have further elevated this otherwise intelligently crafted film.
Janhvi Kapoor plays the titular heroine. As with her first film Dhadak, here too she comes across as an actor who lacks a certain zing in her screen presence that gives stars an indefinable X Factor. Maybe her personality will evolve with age, but for now, in terms of look (a neat fit for the actual Saxena) and acting, she is a good casting choice. I particularly enjoyed her approach to the scenes in which Saxena is seen fleetingly celebrating her small forward steps and the girlish innocence she brings to the interactions between the leading lady and her father without reducing the youngster to a cutesy cliche.
Pankaj Tripathi as the heroine's father brings the entire weight of his acting maturity to the role. While a couple of scenes do bear a now-familiar PT signature, he imbues his character with a warmth and understated steely resolve that makes every scene with him special.
Angad Bedi as Saxena's brother, Vineet Kumar Singh and Manav Vij as her seniors, and all the supporting players are excellent. Although full justice is not done to Saxena's mother in the script, the lovely Ayesha Raza Mishra is endearing despite her character's conservatism.
Gunjan Saxena is a well-produced, well-directed film. Nitin Baid's fine editing propels Sharma's storytelling forward without a single superfluous second left hanging around. Aditya Kanwar's credible production design perfectly matches DoP Manush Nandan's camerawork that is rich without any ornamental flourishes that might have been incompatible with Sharma's chosen style.
Gunjan Saxena never once veers away from its intent to recount an individual's personal story, staying determinedly intimate even in war scenes, with John Stewart Eduri's controlled background score and Ali Merchant's equally restrained sound design. Trivedi's songs occasionally rev up the film's tempo but in a seamless fashion.
Unlike the recently released Shakuntala Devi, which chose to define a woman super-achiever largely in terms of motherhood, this film does not stray from its focus on Saxena's career goals and struggles for even a moment and is unapologetic about its single-mindedness. (Note: the title is not an infantalisation of a 24-year-old woman by the writers - it is a label that appears to have been bestowed on Saxena when she went to war.)
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is so believable that as a woman from a vastly different profession, one that is packed with other women, I still felt like I was watching my own story. When Sukhwinder Singh's voice belted out Kausar Munir's lyrics for the song 'Dhoom dhadaka,' warning men that machismo would be wasted on this firecracker of a woman since she is likely to send their egos packing, I am sure Munir was writing about every woman I know who has fought great odds to make her own road.
Gunjan Saxena is about one remarkable woman, but it is also about every remarkable woman that ever lived. It is poignant and fun, it is shorn of intellectual pretensions but is clever as heck, and I loved it.