Director: Sharan Sharma
Writers: Sharan Sharma, Nikhil Mehrotra
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Vineet Kumar Singh, Manav Vij, Angad Bedi
Cinematographer: Manush Nandan
Editor: Nitin Baid
Streaming on: Netflix
The phrase "the sky is the limit" was perhaps created for Gunjan Saxena, India's first female Air Force pilot to go into combat duty. She was only 24 when she put her life on the line in the Kargil War, carrying out over 40 missions. But her battle started much earlier, when as a little girl, she decided that she wanted to fly. She fought with her family, with Air Force officers who couldn't wrap their heads around a female pilot, with patriarchy so deeply entrenched in the system that there weren't even separate bathrooms for women. Gunjan Saxena is a soldier and a pioneer. Hers is an incredible story that seamlessly blends emancipation, valor, duty and patriotism.
Which makes it rich fodder for film. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl begins with a disclaimer that this is a dramatized version of the events of the flight lieutenant's life with no claims of authenticity. Once again, we are in the treacherous terrain between fact and fiction. But debutant director Sharan Sharma and his co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra take advantage of this hybrid material to create a saga that isn't startlingly innovative but high on impact. This is one of those films in which you are keenly aware that your buttons are being pushed but it's done so artfully that you relish the experience. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl might remind you of Uyare, the wonderful Malayalam film, also about a girl who loved flying, or the Hollywood film, Hidden Figures, about women who forge a path at the male-dominated NASA, but this is a full-blown, homegrown Hindi drama. I will admit that I wept copiously.
The storytelling might not be sophisticated or subtle but it's enormously satisfying. Take the opening, which thrusts us into a precarious situation in Kargil. Soldiers are injured and must be rescued. As Gunjan runs to her helicopter in slow motion with her hair in a bun, I found myself getting a little teary. It's the kind of introduction usually reserved for heroes. The film had just begun but I was already rooting for this young girl who is rushing headlong into danger.
The Kargil War bookends Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Most of the story is about Gunjan fighting all odds to fulfil her dream of flying. Which is wise because the war portions aren't as strong as the rest of the film. The soaring helicopter shots, choreographed by Hollywood aerial coordinator Marc Wolff, give the film scale but the actual battle is spatially confusing and feels hurriedly staged. This film isn't about Uri-style action. It rides on the strength of the human story.
The storytelling might not be sophisticated or subtle but it's enormously satisfying
Which is what Sharan and Nikhil ace. Nikhil seems to have become Hindi cinema's specialist for women empowerment narratives – his other projects include Panga and Dangal. Like in those films, here too, he and Sharan create three-dimensional characters whose struggles are relatable – from the warm and wise supportive father to the loving but chauvinistic brother who learns to value his sister's dreams, to the affectionate but disapproving mother who wishes that Gunjan would remain within the boundaries ascribed to women.
The film is anchored by the relationship between Gunjan and her father, Anup, played with minimal fuss by Pankaj Tripathi. Here is an actor who never seems to be acting. As Anup, Pankaj radiates humanity, which makes him the right person to deliver the key message of the film – that the many shackles society puts on women are a cage which must be broken. Pankaj says this with such compassionate insistence that Gunjan has no option but to listen. Anup is closer to Jassie Gill's Prashant Sachdeva, the caring husband in Panga than Aamir Khan's Mahavir Singh Phogat in Dangal. Anup is a gentle but firm cheerleader. He's the father every girl deserves.
Thankfully, in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, the messaging doesn't get in the way of the movie
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl demands a lot from Janhvi Kapoor, who is only one feature film old. Over the course of the film, Gunjan ages from a schoolgirl to a young woman. Janhvi is practically in every frame. There are stray scenes in which you sense that she is faltering but mostly, she holds her own against far more experienced actors, among them Vineet Kumar Singh, Manav Vij and Angad Bedi who does well as Gunjan's brother. Janhvi's youth and vulnerability serves the character. Her sincerity and determination see her through even the tougher moments. Watch her climactic scene with her brother and the range of emotions that cross her face as he speaks to her. She nails each one. Vineet, as Gunjan's superior who gaslights her at every opportunity, is also solid.
The music by Amit Trivedi doesn't infuse much into the story, apart from the plaintive 'Dori Tutt Gaiyaan', sung by Rekha Bhardwaj and written by Kausar Munir. The song unabashedly tugs at your heartstrings. But I think the film could've done without the on-the-nose 'Bharat ki Beti'. The song plays as the end credits roll by which time the film's message does not need further underlining.
But perhaps that's not true. Perhaps in a country like ours, there can't be enough messaging around women.
And thankfully, in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, the messaging doesn't get in the way of the movie.
You can watch the film on Netflix.