Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is bookended by scenes of war. However, the real battle takes place in the portions that lie in between.
The more compelling sequences in the biopic of the first woman Indian Air Force officer to serve in combat emerge not from the skies but in the barracks. Here, Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) must prove that she is as capable and brave as the next man. Heads turn when Gunjan walks down the corridors of the air force base where she is posted. The place isn’t built for women – there isn’t even a separate toilet beyond the one in her room. Gunjan’s flight commander Dileep (Vineet Kumar Singh) warns her male batchmates to behave themselves in her presence because “Miss Badlav” is here. Dileep doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
Dileep is only the latest of Gunjan’s detractors. Before she wears the air force colours, Gunjan has to overcome doubt within and without. The naysayers include her brother Anshuman (Angad Bedi), himself a soldier, and her mother Kirti (Ayesha Raza Mishra). But Gunjan’s father Anup (Pankaj Tripathi) is loving and progressive and emerges as her strongest ally. Like the coach of a promising athlete, Anup emerges as the wind beneath Gunjan’s wings.
The film is being streamed on Netflix.
The screenplay, by Sharan Sharma and Dangal writer co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra, sometimes resembles a low-key sports drama about an underdog’s long crawl to the finishing line. The flashback portions, about Gunjan’s determination and commitment during her training, are filled with incremental victories. The real challenge emerges in this movie’s equivalent of the stadium. Anup’s chest swells with pride when Gunjan is recruited but Anshuman is sceptical. When the Kargil War of 1999 breaks out, Anshuman’s old words about Gunjan’s safety being more important than her happiness come back to haunt her.
Stripped of its backdrop, Gunjan Saxena emerges as an account of everyday workplace sexism. Swap Gunjan’s uniform for a suit and the barracks for a boardroom and the movie is equally an exploration of women taking crucial steps in all-male worlds despite being tripped up ever so often. The sight of a woman striving to excel in a made-for-men bastion and being forced to watch her every move takes Gunjan Saxena beyond its armed forces setting and into the civilian world.
The 112-minute movie doesn’t require heavy lifting from any of its actors. All it asks of Pankaj Tripathi is to lend his customary teddy-bear warmth to the role of the world’s best dad, and he does so gladly.
Janhvi Kapoor brings out the youthful purity of Gunjan’s pursuit, even though her inexperience shows up in the scenes in which Gunjan appears to be falling and failing. Manav Vij has a neat cameo as Gunjan’s supervisor Gautam, who evens out Dileep’s mistrust and replaces her father as the supportive older man in her life.
First-time director Sharma keeps a studied distance from his subject. The screenplay is uncluttered and muted to a fault – its only mission is to trace the build-up to Gunjan’s triumphant Kargil tour, which means that the person beneath the soldier remains elusive. The shards of Gunjan’s personality that peek through reflect her feats as a pilot rather than as a person – her shy but stubborn ways, her bond with her father, her refusal to be browbeaten.
The narrowcasting works to the movie’s advantage in other ways. Gunjan Saxena is shorn of the chest-thumping that characterises the average war drama. The Kargil sequences are snappy and business-like. The moments that linger have little to do with martial glory. Gunjan successfully flies rescue missions during the war, but her real victory begins earlier, when she fills out a form for enrollment in the air force and sets out to prove what it means to be a girl in a boy’s club.