If seeing the movie title you are expecting a rah-rah jingoistic "How's the josh?" offering for Indian Independence Day, think again. There are no bearded Muslims shouting Allah-o-Akbar. Manoj Kumar via JP Dutta via Akshay Kumar this certainly isn't. This is a story about beating the odds, breaking the glass ceiling and pursuing one's dream single-mindedly in the face of overt hostility and covert misogyny. It could, and does, happen anywhere and everywhere, this one just happens to be set in the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (running time 1 hr 52 min) released on Netflix on August 12 (who knows why on a Wednesday instead of Friday, not everyone is sitting vela in the lockdown). It is based on the true story of Gunjan Saxena, the first woman pilot in the IAF to fly into a combat zone, who gained fame in the 1999 Kargil War flying a helicopter on several rescue and reconnaissance missions. Starting with her childhood, where the bug bites her when on a flight, she is invited to the cockpit by a kindly stewardess, it moves thru her formative years where the desire to become a pilot keeps getting stronger. (On a personal note, the cockpit scene made me nostalgic for the time before the 9/11 attacks when on pretty much every international flight, usually Air India and once on Lufthansa, I would request the stewardess to ask the captain for permission to spend a few minutes in the cockpit, and they would almost always say yes. They were the most thrilling 5 minutes on those flights watching the world down there from that panoramic view surrounded by all that technical wizardry). Despite opposition from her mother and brother, she is supported every step of the way by her army dad. In one telling scene, probably written to address the atmosphere today, Gunjan questions her own motives and whether she is unpatriotic because all she wants to really do is fly. Her dad assures her that sincerity is the opposite of treachery, that doing her job with sincerity is patriotic in itself, and that patriotism is not only about chanting "Jai Hind" in a fervor. The scenes of her challenges of being the only female in a completely testosterone-fueled male domain have a certain Hidden Figures, the 2016 movie on NASA's first black women scientists and mathematicians in the 60s, vibe to them. The songs though are an unnecessary distraction. It culminates with her proving her bonafides when it counts - in the heat of battle.
Jahnvi Kapoor plays Gunjan with the right amount of wide-eyed innocence, enthusiasm, naivete, fear and grit, and not some female version of Rambo or Tiger Shroff. I had not seen her debut feature Dhadak (2018) because I had already seen the original Marathi movie it was based on, Sairat (2016), and was not enthused about watching its gruesome climax all over again, and which I later learned was even more macabre in the Hindi version. The ever reliable Pankaj Tripathi, one of the many illustrious alumni of Anurag Kashyap's magnum opus Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and who was great in Newton (2017) and Stree (2018), plays her dad with amazing grace. Her brother, whose protective instincts harbor a certain gender parochialism, is played somewhat single-note by Angad Bedi (son of famed spinner Bishan Singh Bedi), best known for the The Zoya Factor (2019) and the Amazon series Inside Edge (2017), in both of which he plays the role of a cricketer. The usually effervescent Ayesha Raza Mishra (Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), Sonu ke Titu ki Sweety (2018) and other Punjabi mom roles), also plays stereotypical mom in a sketchily written role. Vineet Kumar, another Wasseypur alumnus, and was in Gold (2018) and Saand ki Aankh (2019), plays the antagonistic commanding officer Dileep Singh who cannot reconcile himself to a woman being part of his squad. Manav Vij, the cop having the affair with the adulteress Tabu in the delicious blood-soaked multi-layered lasagna that was Andhadhun (2018), plays the more supportive commanding officer Gautam Sinha.
Nothing nowadays can be viewed in isolation and so it is with this movie. The current nepotism debate roiling the Indian film industry rears its ugly head here, due to the producer being Karan Johar, who is according to current social media, the most villainous human that ever lived, and the heroine being Jahnvi Kapoor, a member of the lucky sperm club by being the daughter of Boney Kapoor and Sridevi. If that was not enough, just at release time the IAF complained to the Censor Board that the movie had displayed an "undue negative portrayal" of it. Are they really suggesting that all the men very willingly accepted a woman in such a bastion of alpha masculinity? They should in fact take the positive message that she was accepted due to her merits, and opened the door for other women who are now fighter jet pilots as well. If they can find objections in this most innocuous movie, then we are a really long way from having our own Apocalypse Now (1979) or Platoon (1986) or Full Metal Jacket (1987), which show the horrors of war, its debasing effect on soldiers and the atrocities that can be committed in that cauldron, be it Khe Sanh or Kashmir or Kandahar. This is ultimately not a movie about war or the armed forces, but about a woman striking it out on her own, and letting her ambition and spirit take flight and soar.
August 15, 2020