Fight and Flight
Sharan Sharma’s ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ has faced a litany of critiques and formal complaints. Yet it departs from convention in modest ways.
Illustration by Amogh Bhatnagar
The actress Rekha has long had one of Hindi cinema’s most famous outsider narratives. The daughter of South Indian film royalty, Rekha initially found herself at the receiving end of cruelty when she made the trek up North: she was too big, too dark, too other for Bollywood to embrace. So she proved her detractors wrong through hard work, subverting their narrow biases.
In Sharan Sharma’s fictionalized and dramatized biopic Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), the title protagonist’s father (Pankaj Tripathi) invokes Rekha’s trajectory when his daughter (Janhvi Kapoor) nearly abandons her dreams of becoming a pilot in the Indian Air Force (IAF). ‘If Ms. Rekha can do it, what’s stopping Ms. Gunjan?’ he asks, holding up a film magazine that bears Rekha’s face. The magazine details the star’s supposed weight loss regimen. The troubling implications of Rekha’s story—how she, like so many women in Bollywood (including Kapoor’s mother, the late Sridevi), had been held to punishing physical standards rarely put upon men—simmer beneath the surface of this scene.
It is the 1990s, and the IAF is recruiting its first batch of female pilots. Gunjan has nearly cleared the Services Selection Board entrance exam until she learns that she’s a few kilos too heavy, and just a centimeter too short, to qualify. She mopes around her Lucknow home, feeling defeated, until her father encourages her to train and appeal her case on the basis of a permanent disability for her height.
Gunjan exercises and goes back to the IAF, fitter. On contesting the height requirement, she learns that her height is no longer a handicap, either—it turns out her arm and leg reach make up for it. Thus begins Gunjan’s unlikely path to becoming an Air Force Officer in an era when India was not yet accustomed to female pilots in combat. Many setbacks await Gunjan once she reaches the Air Force base in Udhampur, though. Senior officers and peers alike—all men—try to stymie her success. She prospers anyway, as the film tells it, culminating in her historic participation in the Kargil War of 1999.
Gunjan Saxena, which premiered on Netflix on August 12, 2020, is a straightforward and linear biopic that breaks from narrative convention in modest ways. Near the film’s midpoint, for example, Gunjan awakens her father in the middle of the night with a confession: she isn’t a patriot, she just wants to fly planes. Gunjan is worried this admission makes her a traitor to her country, but her father—an army veteran himself—doesn’t admonish her. Sincerity makes one a patriot, he tells her.
The inclusion of this scene steers the film clear of potential jingoistic pitfalls. Some may argue that the film’s very subject matter automatically slides it into propagandistic territory—that portraying the life of a woman who served the state constitutes an endorsement of the military—yet Gunjan Saxena takes an atypical approach for a Bollywood film. Gunjan Saxena’s screenwriters forgo screeds about India’s perceived adversaries (one can only hope for a future for popular Hindi cinema in which this decision to avoid hypernationalist gestures does not seem so surprising). Instead, the film keeps the focus squarely on the tribulations of this young woman, rendering the larger militaristic context a mere backdrop to her struggles.
The choice to make Gunjan Saxena a character-driven film obfuscates the real context of the Kargil War, a conflict that Sharma treats clinically. He could easily have gone the more tempting route to stoke hypernationalist sentiment, given the increasingly cosy relationship between Bollywood and India’s military forces over the past few years. Aditya Dhar’s handsomely-produced Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), released last January, may be the most prominent recent example of a film that peddled what the journalist and writer Rana Ayyub termed a ‘nationalistic narrative and feel-good revenge theme’ through its depiction of India’s retaliatory strikes against Pakistan in 2016. (Ayyub recently praised Gunjan Saxena for being a ‘nationalist film that does not resort to chest thumping patriotism and jingoism but invokes a sense of pride.’) Politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, referenced Uri’s popular line shouted by star Vicky Kaushal, ‘how’s the josh?’; the film commanded the box office. The film went on to win four National Film Awards, including one for Dhar’s directing and another for Kaushal’s acting.
In such a context, including a scene where Gunjan questions her patriotism feels antithetical to Bollywood’s current relationship to the governing party. Despite its comparatively genteel treatment of the topic at hand, Gunjan Saxena has found itself at the center of numerous controversies. Some detractors have taken it to task for anti-national posturing, claiming its characterisation of misogyny within the IAF tarnishes India’s name. In the film, one male captain worries that Gunjan will begin crying during mid-flight emergencies. Others avoid her in hallways just so they won’t have to salute a woman. Even while stationed in Srinagar during the Kargil War, Gunjan’s femininity is a liability: a senior officer threatens to send her back to Udhampur after a news anchor wonders aloud how a ‘Daughter of India’ may be treated as a prisoner of war.
Upon Gunjan Saxena’s release, the IAF wrote to the Central Board of Film Certification slamming the film for casting an ‘undue negative light’ upon the IAF. Some have questioned whether its makers fudged facts to make Gunjan Saxena seem sui generis. The now-retired Flight Lieutenant Sreevidya Rajan has stated that she, too, was posted to Udhampur along with Saxena and later deployed to Srinagar during the Kargil War. On August 17, Saxena herself released a statement on NDTV clarifying that she consulted for the film, defending it against accusations of willful distortion. ‘As I understand, the film was never intended to be a documentary on the Kargil war,’ she wrote. ‘The idea was to showcase my life, my journey, my dreams and my little achievements.’
The film, too, has become a flashpoint for conversations about Bollywood’s slant towards nepotism. Gunjan Saxena came out nearly two months after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, an actor who proved his mettle on television serials before becoming a leading man in Bollywood. Rajput’s death has rekindled conversations about power dynamics in the industry. Implicated in these discussions is Gunjan Saxena’s producer, Karan Johar, who has faced allegations that he upheld a toxic industry standard that favors star kids while disadvantaging talents like Rajput. Mentions of Johar and his production house, Dharma Productions, were largely absent from Netflix promotions of the film. But these omissions did little to quell public anger. The release of Gunjan Saxena’s trailer at the start of August provoked further vituperation from viewers who promised a boycott, particularly due to the involvement of a star kid like Kapoor.
On paper, Kapoor may seem like a misfit for the role of Gunjan. Gunjan is a woman who overcame circumstantial realities, after all, while the odds were largely in Kapoor’s favor since the start of the actress’ career in 2018. The daughter of the Indian film legend Sridevi and the producer Boney Kapoor, she embodies many privileges built into the Hindi film fraternity, receiving opportunities that other untested talents may not have gotten without parentage like hers. Yet Kapoor herself has often been the first to admit that she is a beneficiary of nepotism, answering questions about the topic with greater grace than a number of her contemporaries. She also possesses the requisite talent to justify her presence in the industry.
In Gunjan Saxena, Kapoor movingly, often wordlessly, conveys all that Gunjan feels at various stages in her journey: exuberance, sorrow, fragility, determination. Kapoor projects an innocence that makes her easy to root for. Her delivery can sometimes lack the persuasion of a more fluid performer. She falters in one scene that seems engineered to provide her an explosive monologue about the sexism she faces in her environs: Gunjan yells at the male pilots one night for how loudly they’re partying when she’s just trying to sleep. Kapoor isn’t quite able to portray the gravity of the situation at hand; her desperate pleas land softly.
But Kapoor fares better in a scene where a male senior officer commands one of her peers to arm wrestle her repeatedly, in an attempt to showcase how unfit she is for the IAF. She loses over and over again until a single tear streaks down her face. The scene is a carefully choreographed parade of humiliation. Kapoor’s wounded gaze conveys how battered this incident leaves her.
Gunjan Saxena may have faced charges of hyperbolizing Gunjan’s injustices. In these moments, though, the film makes its central character’s plight feel painfully real. On paper, the film seems to follow a predictable and worrisome formula: An influential production house tells the story of India’s armed forces, casting the daughter of a nation's late beloved superstar in the central role.
The film, in other words, represents the coupling of two powerful entities: the state and the Bollywood establishment. These rough contours would suggest that Gunjan Saxena is less progressive than it actually is. Gunjan Saxena bypasses the problems in this blueprint through its gentle rejection of jingoistic talking points and the quiet force of Kapoor’s performance. The film persuasively depicts Gunjan as an outsider, even if the people telling her story are anything but.
MAYUKH SEN is a writer who covers film, food, and books. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, on immigrant food in America, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Company in Fall 2021.