Director: Sharan Sharma
Writers: Nikhil Mehrotra, Sharan Sharma
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Manav Vij, Vineet Kumar Singh
Cinematographer: Manush Nandan
Editor: Nitin Baid
Streaming on: Netflix
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl has one of the cheekiest hero-foreshadowing sequences in Hindi cinema. The film opens with a group of Indian soldiers cautiously wading through a Kargil valley. Wartime nerves lead to boyish banter. One of them cracks a joke about an empty gun and a colleague's wife. The grinning men are instantly chastised by the squad leader. The casually sexist joke being snubbed is the social equivalent of a rousing superhero theme – seconds later, the Indian Air Force's first female combat pilot, Gunjan Saxena, is dispatched to rescue them from an enemy attack. This scene ties into her arrival at an all-male IAF base, where we see a wry leader (Vineet Kumar Singh) tearing up his officers' racy Pamela Anderson posters before we see her. In short, her journey has come full circle. But the film barely registers the Kargil moment – perhaps because its protagonist, too, never really set out to achieve narrative closure.
Most biographical dramas present their subjects as people who behave like they know a film will be made about them one day. These characters display their effect on history in real time; they are already aware of how their extraordinary presence will be viewed decades later. For instance, we saw Shakuntala Devi deliver feminist lines as a child itself; every other scene became an extravagant lesson in gender equality. But the triumph of director Sharan Sharma's crafty biopic lies in how it reveals Gunjan Saxena as someone whose legacy is an incidental consequence of her individualism. She is more of a dreamer than a public metaphor. She never says things like "I want to touch the sky" or "Red Bull gives you wings". The music says it ("Bharat ki beti"), the treatment says it (slow-claps), her progressive father says it ("shatter the cage and fly away"), but her tender age (she's 24 in Kargil) prevents her from being a mouthpiece. More importantly, her goal is hers. When a family member salutes her with a "Jai Hind," she responds with a hug. When she airlifts the injured, it's less duty and more instinct. Gunjan wants to be a pilot, and flying – both literally and figuratively – is the story that history writes for her; flying is merely a byproduct of her ambition.
The film about her dissolves the umbilical cord that connects masculinity to chest-beating patriotism. But it does so through a person who stays true to herself, not a character who aims to be a woke symbol of change. In the end, you believe that she's still the same spellbound little girl who was invited into an airline cockpit by friendly pilots in aviator sunglasses. In the end, flying is not so much her identity and livelihood as it is still her passion. Consequently, Janhvi Kapoor is an inspired choice to play Gunjan Saxena. Her pitch-perfect turn is no fluke. There's of course her unassuming physicality: the fragile face, the stoic voice, the adolescent waking-up-to-life gaze. But there's also the fact that Kapoor, too, is at a nascent stage of her career. Her focus on excelling as a performer in a film rather than as an actress doing a "woman-oriented" role – as an individual rather than a legacy – naturally feeds the character arc. Kapoor's film heritage mirrors Saxena's army family. Which is why it may initially seem gimmicky that Gunjan Saxena mixes the two worlds.
The biopic is ripe with '90s Bollywood references. Early on, a teenage Gunjan is tense after her board exam results. She's fared too well. In a playful ode to Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, she comes home to discover a party in her honour – a confession, too, plays out in a dramatic family scene behind closed doors. (Bonus: a famous Anil Kapoor song headlines the scene). Soon, her father cites Rekha's 15-kg weight loss for a movie role to inspire Gunjan. During her selection interview, when asked to speak about "current events," she mentions a controversial Govinda song and the Hum Aapke Hain Koun dog, Tuffy. Her best friend is an aspiring actress who tries her luck in Bombay. Her "rival" at the training base is named Shekhar, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar's villain. Even her introduction scene, featuring her feet running in slow-motion towards a helicopter, is a mild hat-tip to Shah Rukh Khan's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham entry.
Yet, Gunjan Saxena is a rare Dharma movie in which none of these elements are token homages. It helps frame Gunjan as a dreamer, yes, but the political incorrectness of '90s Hindi cinema also shapes her setting: an era in which people are yet to grasp that misogyny and jingoism are abnormal traits. Her brother mimicking an air-hostess to mock her pilot dreams, then, feels typical. This in turn makes Gunjan misinterpret her own sincerity as selfishness – an inability to respect the norm. It also lends an urgency and rawness to her monologue about nakli mardaangi (fake masculinity) to the male cadets. She rants like a '90s girl beaten down by a harsh truth, not a crowd-pleasing character voicing a 2020 film's sensibilities.
The screenplay does a terrific job of fleshing out her personality with an eye on public perception. The film's best scenes feature a young Gunjan doubting her own motivations. At one point, she wonders aloud to her father: Is she a "traitor" for using the Indian Air Force as a device to become a pilot? The father's reply is exquisitely worded – a rap on the saffron knuckles of nationalism ("do you think IAF admits those who shout "Bharat Mata ki Jai" the loudest?), but also a gentle reminder that patriotism at its core is the glamorous sibling of humanity. That greatness is the good-looking partner of functionality.
The late Farooq Sheikh's father-son scene in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani came to mind: Be selfish, but be good at being selfish. In Pankaj Tripathi's measured voice, these words also sound more like a discourse on the film's merits. In a way, they sound like an ode to Janhvi Kapoor's deceptively private performance, or the narrative's lightness of touch over status-heavy storytelling. They frame war as an intimate trial by fire rather than a violent clash of egos. And they subvert our sense of space. His words educate her at the dining table and in the kitchen, the two areas of a house traditionally equated with Indian womanhood. Gunjan Saxena adds a helicopter cockpit to that list. Flying might be the book that history writes for her, but it's also a chapter in her personal diary.