Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl on Netflix, with Janhvi Kapoor: A rousing biopic that honours its subject while also humanising her

Posted on August 10, 2020


Pankaj Tripathi and Janhvi Kapoor form a terrific father-daughter team that becomes the emotional core of a beautifully written drama.

Spoilers ahead…

Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena is the first woman IAF officer to go to war, the only woman to be part of the Kargil War, the first woman to be awarded the Shaurya Chakra… Her life reads like something you’d see in a superhero comic. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is the origins story. We open with a troop of soldiers needing to be evacuated from a zone riddled with enemy fire. Back at base camp, a senior officer says the mission will be carried out by our heroine, and we cut to a… slo-mo “hero” introduction shot, like in our masala cinema. As Gunjan Saxena (Janhvi Kapoor) races to her chopper, we see the legs, the stiff-spined back, and finally, the face. At that point, I winced and thought… too much, too soon? Are we in for a rah-rah story, with a readymade-for-worship heroine?

But almost at once, we are packed off to the past and the rest of this film, it turns out, is the lead-up to this moment. This heroine is far from readymade. Forget others doubting her abilities, she doubts herself. And by the end, when we return to this war zone, we realise how well-deserved this slo-mo intro shot was. It marks the birth of this superhero-ine — not just the moment the world will see her as one, but also the moment she wills herself to be one.

The Kargil Girl is a powerful drama and the closing scenes left me in a state of free-flowing tears, but for the first half-hour or so, I simply got the sense of… competence. The writing, by director Sharan Sharma and Nikhil Mehrotra, moves in sharp, clean lines — there’s none of the Shakuntala Devi-like clutter. (I loved how the passage of five years, around the time Gunjan tries to get into flying school, is compressed into one sweetly comic stretch.) But it’s also a tad generic, and the score a tad too insistent. Here, the young Gunjan is ushered into a plane’s cockpit by a sympathetic stewardess who sees how badly the girl wants to see the skies outside. There, we see Gunjan in class, drawing pictures of aircraft and also drawing the teacher’s wrath.

But slowly — and despite these biopic generalities — the film’s specifics pull us in. Take Gunjan’s brother (Angad Bedi). “Ladkiyan pilot nahin banti,” he mocks her, when they’re still kids dreaming big. He thinks women can only be stewardesses. This comes from ingrained patriarchy, of course, but the writing humanises the character. He’s worried for this girl who’s always been sheltered. Later, when they meet again in Kargil — he’s in the Army — he brings up the topic of their parents. What he says without saying is: I am a man and I am in the Army, and that’s okay, but if something happens to me, who’s going to take care of mummy and papa? It’s how a lot of men thought in the 1990s. It’s how a lot of men think today.

Or take the flying-school instructor who can barely hide his irritation with Gunjan’s presence in the all-male academy. (Vineet Kumar Singh plays this man beautifully, making him tough and a taskmaster without making him a macho cliché.) Again, like Gunjan’s brother, he may be sexist, but he’s not just that. There’s something else. His job, as he sees it, is to serve/save the nation, not to provide equal employment opportunities — and he equates serving/saving with brute strength. An arm-wrestling contest he puts Gunjan through is painful to watch. It’s a superb scene. We feel for her — yet, we also see where he’s coming from.

This arm-wrestling moment is revisited — heart-warmingly — in the end, in the best mainstream tradition. The Kargil Girl doesn’t reject the grammar of “Hindi cinema”. It builds on it. One of my favourite touches is how flying becomes Gunjan’s “relationship”. It’s treated in a way another film would treat a boyfriend. Early on, we get a song that says: Tujh sang bandhi yeh man ki dori. And later, after Gunjan decides to quit flying, we get a “twin” song that extends the metaphor from that earlier number and says: Mahiya ve, dori tutt gaiyaan. The words in Kausar Munir’s lyrics (mahiya, man ki dori) are usually used for a beloved. It’s just that here, it’s a plane and not a person.

But unlike in the Hindi movies from the Kargil era, there’s very little melodrama — even the tricolour is showcased discreetly, in the far distance or in the corner of a frame. The palette is discreet, too. It’s only when we get to a marriage scene that we see how much colour has been drained from the rest of the film. The scenes in the flying academy are ripe for amping-up. There’s no women’s toilet. There’s no changing room. There’s no co-pilot, as no man wants to fly with Gunjan. There’s no friend, as everyone scatters when she nears them. But there’s no solo violin, either. We feel the sadness without hearing it on the soundtrack. The Commanding Officer (an excellent Manav Vij) may feel fatherly towards her, but he’s certainly not the kind of father who’ll pat your back or smile. As with the music, we feel his fatherliness without hearing it in his lines.

That task is left to Gunjan’s very fatherly father back home, played by Pankaj Tripathi in a performance as sweet and as comforting as the cassata ice-creams he serves at home. He plays some fussy, near-silent comedy (just watch how he pours water from a jug, balancing it in the air with the preciseness of a tightrope walker) and brightens the film’s mood. The character also balances out the sexism we see in the other men, but without making a fuss about it. When he sees his son mocking Gunjan’s flying ambitions, he says, “Jab plane ko farak nahin padta hai ki usey kaun uda raha hai, toh tumhe kya hai? (Why do you care who’s flying the plane when the plane itself doesn’t?) He doesn’t raise his voice one bit, and this is the same tone he uses in a terrific scene with his daughter, when he mocks her defeatist attitude. This is equality. This is also one of the great supporting performances in recent times. Even when the man is not on screen, we sense his presence, like a spirit.

And Janhvi is right up there. I can’t say I bought her one big explosion — but she’s brilliant in a quieter dramatic scene where she swallows a lump in her throat while speaking to her father over the phone. Janhvi may turn out to be an actress who does more with less: her half-smiles to herself after small accomplishments (like a successful training session) resemble those of a girl opening her exam answer paper and seeing an “A”.  Scrubbed of makeup, there’s a tentativeness about her, a fragileness, a “not yet fully formed” quality — and these traits are a perfect fit with Gunjan, who is finding herself through the course of this movie. I was often reminded of the scene in The Silence of the Lambs where a tiny Jodie Foster enters a lift with basketball player-high colleagues. As an aside, The Kargil Girl inadvertently touches on the nepotism issue when the shorter-than-required Gunjan is discovered to have longer-than-average limbs. “Jise bhagwan ne hi chuna ho usey hum kaise reject kar sakte hain?” says the selection-committee officer, and I laughed. A mischievous reading of the line could go thus: If God Himself has put someone in a position of privilege, what can mere men do about it? #tooSoon? #okayJustKidding #really

But elsewhere, this is a sobering story that, at one point, pauses at a memorial for martyrs. This is an important moment because of who Gunjan Saxena is today, a brave daughter of the nation — but it’s also important in the context of who she was then. The most brilliant writing decision is to have Gunjan question her place in the Air Force. (The line comes from her mother, first.) She just wanted to fly planes, but she’s now in the Air Force, which is — if anything — a higher calling. Does she have the requisite “desh bhakt” in her? The Kargil Girl doesn’t answer this question directly, but it tells us that patriotism isn’t necessarily about what we feel. It can also be what we end up doing. Gunjan Saxena may not have joined the Air Force as a “patriot”, but there’s little doubt she ended up one.

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