Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl Movie Review: A deeply moving tale of a feminist father and his feisty daughter

STORY: The film chronicles the incredible real life story, struggles and gender based discrimination faced by former Indian Air Force pilot Gunjan Saxena (played by Janhvi Kapoor). Known as the ‘Kargil Girl’, Gunjan was honoured with the Shaurya Vir award for displaying exemplary courage during the Kargil war in 1999.

REVIEW: Gender stereotypes are as old as the hills. While men are preordained to excel at something, women stepping into that territory continue to ruffle a few feathers. It’s not uncommon for women to face blatant, casual or concealed sexism, no matter how accomplished. Female athletes are asked who their favourite male athlete is. Are women smart enough to analyse science fiction films or sports? If this is what we face today, Lucknow girl Gunjan Saxena shattered the glass ceiling in the 90s when she became an IAF pilot. She did it at a time when feminism wasn’t in vogue. It was only in 2016, that India saw its first ever women fighter pilots to be commissioned into the Indian Air Force. Women were not inducted in the fighter stream before. Flight Lieutenants Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan paved the way for others to follow. In 1999, Gunjan, the former helicopter pilot at 24, became India’s first woman combat aviator to fly Cheetah helicopters in the Kargil war zone. She was tasked with medical evacuations, supply drops, and mapping enemy position duties.

Hailing from an army family, raised by a remarkable father (Pankaj Tripathi at his best), what makes Gunjan’s journey unique and a film on her much deserving was, her mental conditioning. Her dreams were never defined by gender because it wasn’t imbibed in her as a child. She wasn’t told what she can or cannot have because she is a woman. She desired to fly a plane since her childhood and that is what she did. She never set out to make a statement or inspire people. She merely followed her dream. But it was looked upon as an act of defiance by those who felt dwarfed by her unrelenting ambition. While some men tried to curtail her growth, the wind beneath her wings were also men — be it her father, a retired army man who raised his son and daughter as equals, or the shrewd but supportive Group Captain at the Udhampur Air Force Station.

Sharan Sharma, who makes a compelling directorial debut with this film, captures the gender dynamics with honesty and poise. It’s rare for an Indian biographical film to show people just the way they are. Sharma calls out the sexism faced by Gunjan in the Armed Forces not to exploit her story but to begin a conversation. His gaze towards his characters is realistic, yet, humane and heartfelt. While the film compels you to redefine patriotism and battle patriarchy, at heart, it is a poignant ode to a father-daughter relationship. Two people who never give up on each other. Their respective roles fit Pankaj Tripathi and Janhvi like a glove. They convince you that there couldn’t have been a better pair to essay these roles. While Tripathi brings in his famous effortless brilliance (he is to Gunjan, what Shabana Azmi was for Neerja), Janhvi Kapoor is a revelation. Not only is she age appropriate for her role, her eyes mirror Gunjan’s childlike exuberance as well as shades of sorrow and anger at being conveniently side-lined by her sexist superior (Vineet Kumar Singh as the Wing Commander). The actress is impeccable as Gunjan Saxena. Vineet and Angad Bedi get one-dimensional characters with limited scope, yet, they aren’t forgettable.

Reminiscent of a heart-warming father-daughter conversation in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja (Bahadur baccha kaun), the strongest point of this film is a scene where Gunjan confides in her father. “Air Force needs cadets jinmey desh bhakti ho. Mujhe toh bas plane udaana hai”, she confesses her guilt. In order to fulfil her dream, is she being disloyal to her country, she wonders. Her father explains to her that desh bhakti is not about shouting slogans or jingoism but to do your job with utmost sincerity. “Tum behter pilot ban jao, desh bhakti apney aap ho jayegi.” The writing complements the mood, sentiment and pace of the film perfectly.

Provocative and gripping, Sharma may not have extensive source material at hand but within two hours, he shows you exactly what he sets out to. He admires the grit and quiet determination of Gunjan, a national hero, without necessarily worshipping her. He retains what makes her human and that is this biographical drama’s biggest achievement. Given that Kargil war is a crucial backdrop and the film centres on pilot training, the helicopter sorties, and aerial combat scenes are executed well, courtesy, renowned American aerial coordinator Marc Wolff, known for his work in Hollywood blockbusters like Mission Impossible, Jason Bourne and Star Wars series.

More than anything else, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a deeply moving tale of a feminist father and his feisty daughter. It wages war against patriarchal mind-set and discrimination, and identifies it as a bigger threat to progress than the one we perhaps tackled in 1999.

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