Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, inspired by the life of flight lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, is about India’s first female air force pilot in combat. The trailer, which dropped on August 1, isn’t subtle about the sexism Gunjan faced – she’s late to class because there is no place to change, when she asks about a women’s toilet, she’s told there isn’t one. We see flashes of a rousing story about a woman who fights her own family, society, patriarchy and ultimately the enemy in battle, and emerges victorious. This is a story that needs to be told.
I found the trailer moving and inspiring. When I tweeted that the film looked solid, I was instantly trolled. Why? Because the film has been produced by Dharma Productions and it stars Janhvi Kapoor as Gunjan Saxena. I was called a “Dharma stooge” and much worse. Over the last two months, since the tragic death of Sushant Singh Rajput, the conversation around nepotism in the film industry has come into sharp focus. In the trial by Twitter and television channels, Karan Johar has been identified as the poster boy for the insider-outsider caste system that plagues the film industry. There have been several calls to boycott Dharma Productions because one faction believes that it might provide a sense of justice and closure to the family, friends and fans of Sushant, who was of course an outsider.
The case is subjudice. The authorities are still determining what happened. The circumstances surrounding Sushant’s untimely passing are heartbreaking. The ensuing conversation on nepotism, entertainment journalism, entitled actors and poor business practices is necessary and important. Perhaps this, along with the pandemic, will force introspection, disruption and ultimately, change across sectors. We know that there is much to be fixed within the industry. We were all, in ways big and small, complicit in this tragedy. We all understand that each one of us can do better.
But what happens when you bring external circumstances to bear on a film? When you hate on Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl for merely existing, you effectively negate the work of hundreds of people. The film has been directed by debutant Sharan Sharma. Among other jobs listed on his IMDB page is assistant director on Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani in 2013. So he’s been working towards becoming a director since at least then. Gunjan Saxena was announced in December 2018. There must have been several months of writing and incubating the project before that. This film, like most films, is the result of a minimum of two years of work.
When Sharan was shooting, especially those aerial shots of Gunjan going into combat, he might have imagined how that would play out on a big screen, how the scale of the action would help to immerse the audience in Gunjan’s journey and give them a sense of her valor, what she risked and what it takes to put your life on the line. That did not come to pass. On August 12, the film will premiere on Netflix. As per the streaming giant’s global policy, the trailer identifies the film as ‘a Netflix Original’. There are no credits. Unless you actively search for it, there is no way to know that Sharan directed it or that it’s been co-written by Nikhil Mehrotra, who also co-wrote Chhichhore and Dangal. Sharan, Nikhil and the rest of the team will not experience the thrill of seeing their names on the big screen. It’s impossible for us, the audience, to understand the disappointment of that. As Robert De Niro, playing Frank Sheeran in another Netflix film The Irishman, so memorably put it: It is what it is.
To pull the film down before seeing it is to diminish the hard work and sweat of the entire unit, which includes the spot dada who served water on the shoot, the focus puller who worked tirelessly and Pankaj Tripathi and, Vineet Kumar Singh, who also act in the film
We don’t know if Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is any good. But even if you buy into the specious argument that Karan and Janhvi are responsible for propagating an unfair system, you do know that they didn’t make the film by themselves. To pull it down before seeing it is to diminish the hard work and sweat of the entire unit, which includes the spot dada who served water on the shoot, the focus puller who worked tirelessly and Pankaj Tripathi and, Vineet Kumar Singh, who also act in the film. Both are outsiders who have had long and arduous journeys to success.
I didn’t know Sushant well but I can’t imagine that he would approve of this sort of takedown. In 2017, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali was attacked while shooting Padmaavat, Sushant spoke up vociferously against it and even dropped his last name as a mark of protest. When he was asked, in a red carpet interview about Padmaavat, he said: Acchi kahaani hogi toh sab dekhenge.
Exactly. Let a film sink or swim on its own merits. Boycotts and hate will not help to make the industry a more equitable place. What will help is encouraging and patronizing good art and good artists – irrespective of who they are and where they come from. Let’s talk about what’s within the frame. The rest is noise.