When writer-director Sharan Sharma met the subject of his biopic Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, he was surprised at how “outwardly gentle” and “inwardly strong” the first woman Indian Air Force pilot and the first female pilot to serve in combat was.
“The world always doubted her because of her outward demeanour but she had complete self-belief, an inner roughness but was soft and kind on the outside,” Sharma said during a video interview.
Gunjan Saxena flew helicopters and conducted rescue and surveillance missions during the Kargil War of 1999. Her tenure with the Indian Air Force ended a few years after the war since there were no permanent commissions for women at the time. The rules have since changed – women pilots were inducted into the air force in 2016.
Sharma was seeking an actor who could capture Saxena’s traits while also playing a character who ages from 16 to 25 years. He found his Gunjan in Janhvi Kapoor. “When I saw her in Dhadak, I saw someone pure, innocent, vulnerable with stars in her eyes and a drive to do a lot in her life,” Sharma said.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl will be streamed on Netflix on August 12. Pankaj Tripathi plays Anup, Gunjan’s supportive father. Tripathi was most attracted to “portraying a progressive father of the 1980s and ’90s, considering that even today there is a shortage of such fathers in our society”, he said.
The relationship between father and daughter is marked by a strong connection and easy repartee. Tripathi credits Kapoor for her persistence in ensuring a mutual comfort level before shooting commenced.
“The chemistry did not come naturally,” Tripathi said. “Janhvi worked hard on that and as I was busy shooting, she would follow up and show up at my set. We would chat and during that time I got to know her well. Now the bond is so strong that if in another film we have to play characters in a vastly different relationship, it might actually be difficult. I might make her start running and training.”
Gunjan Saxena will be getting a worldwide release through Netflix. The film will avoid opening weekend box office pressures since it has bypassed conventional distribution – but that doesn’t mean that Kapoor is taking things lightly.
“My expectations from myself are definitely higher,” she said. “I knew what I had to work on after my first film and I have tried to push myself to do more and be more. I have given this my all and I hope I have done justice to the character. Frankly even if we were having a theatrical release, I would not be stressed about this film, because the process itself was so fruitful. I am extremely happy because of the reach and also when I look at the Netflix slide show, I see my face on it, right next to Ryan Gosling from First Man.”
One thing Kapoor did find challenging during the filming was the Lucknow heat. “It was 48 degrees – but strangely, after we came back to Mumbai I missed that also,” she said. “Sitting in a super air-conditioned studio I wondered I was not sweating enough and therefore not giving it my best.”
How did the 23-year-old third-generation actor connect with a woman whose journey is so different from her own? Kapoor said she was inspired by Saxena’s purity of intention and her unwavering self-belief.
“Through this journey, I got a lot of confidence in myself too,” she said. “I think when someone has to prove themselves time and time again, and face numerous obstacles, one can either get bogged down by it or use it to propel their journey and get motivated to achieve even greater things. Not that I have had to fight for things the way she had to do, not that I have had an uphill climb in terms of opportunities, but everyone has their own journey and it’s important to recognise that you can derive good from even the worst situations in the world.”
Had Janhvi Kapoor heard similar stories about her mother, the movie star Sridevi? “I have heard stories from my mom, but I think even the way she approached it was not to fight her way out of it or raise her voice against it,” Kapoor recalled. “Rather, she worked so much and so hard and so diligently that it was not an obstacle for her anymore. Even Gunjan m’am just worked and worked. She didn’t set out with a hammer to break any glass ceiling. She just kept working.”
The movie marks the directorial debut of Sharan Sharma, who served as an assistant director on Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016). Sharma admits that he felt a bit “underexposed” in the technical areas but found strong pillars of support in his cinematographer Manush Nandan and aerial coordinator Marc Wolff, whose credits include Black Hawk and some of the Mission: Impossible and Star Wars films. “I realised that, in the end, it is a scene composed of emotion, drama, action and reaction,” Sharma said.
What has been their go-to entertainment during lockdown? Kapoor is “obsessed” with Succession. Sharma described The Last Dance as “the best thing” he has ever seen. He has also been watching Raj Kapoor’s films.
Tripathi, always one to surprise, said, “I don’t like watching films and shows. I like reading and I am watching the rain.”