Love for the motherland is way more than being proud of the Army, the National Flag, or any political ideology. The expression of the love for independence is not merely about hoisting the flag or sharing quotes on social media. It is about acknowledging the individuals who have had to fight society and systems to emerge winners – who have had "to break free of the cage and fly", in the words of Anup Saxena, played by Pankaj Tripathi in the Netflix movie Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl.
August 15th has always been about watching repeat telecasts of Border, LOC Kargil, Tirangaa or Krantiveer on TV. For decades, Bollywood has served us aggressive masculine pride, patriotic music and chest-thumping jingoism in the name of patriotism. Tanhaji and Uri have been part of this legacy too. But finally Karan Johar changed all that on the eve of the 74th Indian Independence Day. In spite of all the hue and cry over "nepotism" and fierce criticism against casting a star kid in the lead role, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl happens to be the best film that one could watch on Independence Day, 2020.
Right at the start, debutant director Sharan Sharma breaks all stereotypes and surprises us with an introductory scene, the kind that has forever been reserved for the male "heroes". The lead actress running towards a helicopter in slow-motion on a mission to rescue male soldiers fighting the enemy on our borders might just give one goose bumps. But the film is not about combat with cross-border enemies, it is not about effects-heavy war scenes, and it is certainly not about Sunny Deol-esque dialogues.
The story explores the early life and struggles of a girl who wishes to fly into the skies, but who must fight society, her disapproving brother, her mother and her superiors first. It is about her fight against the patriarchal society, where, ironically, her biggest aid and support happens to be her own father. The narrative uses wit and Amit Trivedi's music to smartly curate montages of her selection and training – preparing for the academy and, later, in the academy too. The director shows restraint by not making the film deteriorate into a war film. It stays honest to the personal tale of Flight Lieutenant Saxena, the first woman to fly a helicopter into combat for the Indian Air Force. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl brings all the drama that it can out of a career that in reality was surely a painstaking grind. Gunjan Saxena was, after all, flying in the face of decades of prejudice and breaking new ground.
The rest of the cast – Ayesha Raza Mishra, Angad Bedi, Manav Vij and Vineet Kumar Singh – are all in top form. But the screenplay demands too much from Janhvi Kapoor by way of emotive range. She occasionally comes across as fragile and raw and under-performing. It may seriously be considered, however, whether Gunjan Saxena, in her real life, was as emotive as Taapsee Pannu or Radhika Madan! Perhaps not. And hence, in telling her story, the director and his team can hardly be accused of having miscast their lead. The actress is as old as the onscreen character she plays and that stands her in good stead. Sharma is smart enough to factor any residual viewer reservations around Kapoor's cover-girl softness into her commanding officer's antagonism. Gunjan's vulnerability and finding joy in little moments of success are well portrayed by the doe-eyed Janhvi.
The ever-reliable Pankaj Tripathi serves as the backbone of Gunjan's fight for her own independence. The film redefines patriotism in one particular scene where Tripathi explains its true meaning, which is in stark contrast to what we have come to learn over the years through popular media. It is sincerity and unwavering dedication towards the work that we do in our daily lives. That will eventually serve the nation well.
This is the right time to invest in Gunjan's journey from an aspirational pilot to a patriotic soldier. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a must watch.