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Gunjan Saxena Review: Where no (Indian) woman's gone before

Updated on: 10 August,2020 09:11 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Gunjan Saxena Review: Where no (Indian) woman's gone before

A still from Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
U/A; Drama
On: Netflix
Director: Sharan Sharma
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Vineet Kumar Singh, Angad Bedi
Rating: Rating

Wait, is this the first desi film (ever) centred on the female lead, while there is no allusion, let alone presence of a male love-interest (or 'significant other', as they call it) — all through? Statisticians, who keep score — and there should be such folk for cinema as there are in sport — should know better.
I mean, there is a moment where the young heroine, as it were, mentions something to the effect of wanting to get married. But that's just a stray remark, coming off her volition, and something her dad vehemently opposes.

Watch Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl Trailer

Pankaj Tripathi plays the father's role. In ways that only he can. When he simply walks in with that beatific smile to the screen, within the film's first minute, he radiates enough warmth for you to root for his little one already. Because she's the daughter of such a lovely man! This sort of presence is such a unique quality to have. Makes the job of empathy so easy for an audience.

Also quite often, the father as the persistent ally explains a lot about how patriarchy gets challenged in society (among desis anyway). Take the phenomenal story of Malala, for instance (Davis Guggenheim's He Named Me Malala; 2015).

Gunjan Saxena's of course a very different tale. She's a fighter pilot — from the first batch of female recruits in the history of Indian Air Force (IAF). An officer, and a lady — she fought the Kargil War in 1999.
Oh, another thing. Is this the first Indian war-movie that at no scene, dialogue, casual or otherwise, ever descends into blood-lust/thirst, to a point that I don't think Pakistan, the enemy across the border, is even mentioned once? And it's an Indo-Pak war film?

That is commendable alright. For multiple reasons. But more so, because the jingoism bit on the battlefield has been done and dusted to death. To the soldier in the actual frontline, I'm presuming, what matters is the tactics/mechanics of war, rather than emotions behind it — think 1917 (2019).

No, I'm not comparing this to the Sam Mendes masterpiece. The scale and conflict there was way too wide/expansive. No knock on this film's technical competence either. It sits comfortably among the better ones of the lot — with a first-time filmmaker (Sharan Sharma) at the helm, which is a feat on its own.

The issue perhaps is that for a good portion, there isn't quite a real conflict in the picture at all — introduced nonetheless; for how else do you carry along a plot, without an obstacle course to engage audiences with?

The girl has a dream (to fly). The dad is there to see it fulfilled. It's only when she's in the Air Force, flying high, having broken a real ceiling that she's up against an impenetrable wall. These are men (led confidently by actor Vineet Kumar Singh), who cannot deal with a woman in their base.

There is also a bro-code that the girl must honour. Which anybody who's been to an all-boys' boarding school will recognise right away. And I'm guessing the armed forces work no differently. She never rats on her seniors. She's hazed to the point of serious public humiliation.

To what extent is this true? Real life Gunjan Saxena, on whom this script is based, has evidently participated in its telling/writing. Either way, the last thing I'd want to know is the defense establishment's reaction to this film. This doesn't claim to be a piece of documentary or journalism either.

The armed forces have recently asked for powers to pre-censor films set around their workings/profession. Which is a privilege that must then also be extended to the police, judiciary, bureaucrats, politicians…. Where does this end? But that's a separate matter.

What's undeniable about Gunjan Saxena, only partly about the Kargil War, is that it is the ultimate insider-outsider story. About a phenomenon so universal — across all fields and spheres of life — that you can practically dub every film as being about the outsider, becoming the insider (or not). Or as Tolstoy famously said, "All great literature is one of two stories: A man goes on a journey; or a stranger comes to town."

This is a woman. Jahnvi Kapoor, 23, plays or rather wholly embodies Gunjan Saxena — through the '80s to the end of '90s. She wears that perennial look on her face of someone to whom life simply happens, while she casually passes the world by. There is something so non-actor type about her presence. Maybe the word I'm looking for is instinct. You stay with her throughout. Is this film for young girls what Govind Nihalani's IAF film Vijeta (1982) was for kids that generation?

Could be. It's certainly straight from the gut kinda stuff. You know what I would've preferred though: Watching this collectively with an audience — emotions further amplified in a dark hall, before a massive screen — with people responding to every cue, until the inevitable crescendo in the climax. Impossible to simulate that experience alone at home no?

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