Janhvi Kapoor plays the ultimate outsider in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, a biopic of the Indian Air Force's first female combat pilot, out on Netflix recently. It is not as slickly made as Uri: The Surgical Strike, but refreshingly, neither are its politics as problematic.
Gunjan Saxena does not subscribe to the hyper-nationalism that recent Indian war films have so proudly worn on their chest. Instead, director Sharan Sharma has chosen to explore a wholly different, but equally thorny topic: feminism.
Watch trailer for "Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl" here
In South Asian countries, the idea of equal opportunity is seen as a threat by those in positions of power. Which is why there is a systemic effort to maintain the status quo. Gunjan Saxena, solely on the strength of her convictions, chose to break it. "Pinjra tod," her father, played by the great Pankaj Tripathi, tells her in an excellent scene in the film's final act, when Gunjan, having nearly given up on her dreams of becoming a pilot, returns home. Tripathi, playing perhaps the most tender character of his career — Gunjan's dad reminded me of Kumud Mishra's equally virtuous character in Thappad — is the heart and soul of the film.
From an early age, Gunjan's father, an army officer, was the only one who supported her dream of becoming a pilot. Despite topping her class in school, she frets about telling her parents that her future lies not in some man's kitchen, but in the skies. The moment when she breaks the news to her folks could almost be mistaken for her coming out as gay — there is gossip among the relatives, her brother adopts the 'log kya kahenge' attitude, and Gunjan's mother even proposes visiting an astrologer for advice on how to 'cure' her.
These early scenes unfold at a clip, providing just enough context for us to care about Gunjan and her difficult journey. But every time she overcomes an obstacle — Gunjan in the film is gifted to a fault — she is faced with a new one.
Her joy at being admitted into the air force academy is short-lived, because it is here that she truly experiences sexism. She misses training because the base does not have a place for her to change into overalls. She is forced to relieve herself in a men's washroom because there is not one for women. Nearly all of her fellow cadets refuse to participate in sorties with her, for fear of being outclassed. And her superior (an irredeemable man played by Vineet Kumar Singh) subjects her to further indignity by ordering her to arm-wrestle another cadet, displaying the sort of narrow-minded male mentality that the film repeatedly calls out.
Like Gunjan, it seems as if the young actor is aware that she must work harder than others to prove herself. She brings a sense of discomfort to her performance in the air force scenes, which one would like to believe is deliberate. In any case, it works.
There is no obstacle Gunjan can not cross by simply tapping into her reserve of strength. And there is no narrative problem that Sharma, who is making his directorial debut here, ca not solve with a montage, or with the help of an overbearing background score.
He structures the film almost like a superhero origin story. Gunjan suffers hardships despite her obvious talents, but she develops her skills patiently, until she is called upon to unleash her powers in battle. By writing Gunjan as someone whose first love is not serving their country, but flying, Sharma offers a new perspective on uber-patriotic war movies.