Review: ‘Bharat ki beti’ Janhvi soars high as Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

Janhvi Kapoor shows great composure, heart and grit in a fitting tribute to an unsung hero from the Kargil war

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Janhvi Kapoor in and as Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl [2020]

By Mayur Lookhar

There’s no magic wand to success.  Most great stories begin by simply having a dream. And those who dare to dream, fly high.  First-time director Sharan Sharma takes you onboard the inspirational journey of Ex- Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena.  The girl from Delhi was one of the two women pilots to carry out operations in a war zone during the 1999 Kargil war.  The other woman was Kerala’s Sreevidya Rajan, who has now retired from the Indian Air Force.

If there were two women pilots, then why have a film just on Saxena? Well, that is open to debate but producers Dharma Productions, Zee Studios and director Sharma can’t be faulted for celebrating the heroics of Saxena.  Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl [2020] though is a far cry from the jingoistic films of the yore.  In fact, there is no mention of the old enemy [Pakistan] in the war scenes or IAF compound. The only time Pakistan is mentioned is through an update on the war in a news bulletin.

How do you make an engaging film on an unsung hero whose bravado stems from not any combat but a rescue-op? The one who saves life is equally brave as one who takes life in a war.

Sharma’s film is a fictionalised account of Saxena’s journey. The long disclaimer makes it amply clear of the creatives taking cinematic liberties. The director and his screenwriter [Nikhil Mehrotra] take a subtle feminist approach in presenting the inspiring story of Saxena.  It’s never easy for a woman when she steps into a man’s world. In new (urban) India, this could be a fallacy, but it’s taken a while for this level playing field to set in. But for the best part of the 20th century, women had to struggle to earn their stripes. 

Sharma’s young Gunjan Saxena [Riva Arora] is enamored by the sight of an airborne plane when she is let in to the cockpit by a courteous air hostess [played by Maria Shrishti].  Thereafter, there are no paper planes made, but the young girl has set her heart on becoming a pilot one day.  She hails from an army family, but there’s internal opposition.  No, it doesn’t come from her father Anup Saxena [Pankaj Tripathi], but it’s her brother Anshuman [Aryan Arora] and mother who make light of the young girl’s dream.  As a child, Anshuman mocked at his little sister reminding her that girls don’t fly but they serve on flights.  It’s the father though who backs his daughter to the hilt.

A few years later, lack of finances kills Gunjan’s [Janhvi Kapoor] dream. However, in a Dangalesque moment, Anup Saxena spells It out clearly, “Man or woman, but a pilot is called pilot only”.   So commercial flying is out of reach, but Gunjan grabs the chance to enroll into the Indian Air Force.  The young lady though encounters altogether different challenges under Wing Commander Dileep Singh [Vineet Kumar Singh].

The trailer claimed Saxena was the first woman officer of IAF. Well, that is still up for debate. What’s not though is that Saxena and Sreevidya Rajan were the only women pilots to be assigned tasks in a war zone during the Kargil conflict.  Sharma, Mehrotra pen a simple, uncomplicated narrative to tell Saxena’s inspiring journey.  The amount of fiction to this journey can only be explained by the real hero herself, but director Sharma succeeds in presenting an motivating, subtle feminist story.

The Indian Air Force has already raised an alarm over the perceived ‘negative portrayal’, gender bias in the film.  The armed forces are the best to take a call here, but as a mere civilian, your reviewer didn’t find the narrative objectionable.  In no way does Sharan Sharma’s film suggest at any institutionalised (gender) bias. It only exposes the insecurity of a couple of men. 

Remember Saxena had enrolled into the IAF in 1994. India was still a largely patriarchal society then.  And the insecurity of the few men doesn’t stem for any gender bias per se, but FEAR. Wing Commander Dileep Singh fears that Gunjan will crumble in the heat of the battle and so it’s a grave risk to go with a female pilot during a war.   This ‘fear’ is spelled out loudly, too, by Saxena when she bares her heart one eve. There are couple of moments when the fear veers to sexism but it still remains an individual’s perception.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a tale of overcoming obstacles. After a rather sedate debut in Dhadak [2018], Janhvi Kapoor showed promise in Ghost Stories [2020].  As Gunjan Saxena, Kapoor arguably gives the most impressive performance of her young career thus far. Artistes are blessed with gifts. Janhvi may not be the most gifted, but its her genuine sincerity, humility that mirrors the persona of her character.  Kapoor is child-like as the young Gunjan. Once into the IAF, she is nervy, obedient, and a bit vulnerable too. Kapoor shows great composure in the tricky situations that Gunjan finds herself in.

Gunjan Saxena’s dreams wouldn’t have been possible without the able support of her father. Pankaj Tripathi aces the maturity, gentleness of Anup Saxena to the T.  Maybe, a bit too gentle for an army officer, but there’s nothing pretentious about Tripathi.  Anup Saxena helps Tripathi break away from the intimidating, jovial characters that’s he played before. There’s just one shade to Anup Saxena – simplicity, and Tripathi exhibits it utmost sincerity.

Ayesha Raza Mishra is impressive as Anup’s wife Kirti, while Angad Bedi shines as Gunjan’s pessimistic brother Anshuman.

We last saw him playing a soldier in Betaal [2020] and Vineet Kumar Singh dons the Wing Commander’s hat in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil War. Much like Betaal, Singh’s gentle demeanor makes him an unfit to play an envious, insecured officer Dileep Singh. Remarkably, the film maker’s clubbed Vineet’s act as a special appearance.  

Manav Vij though does his reputation no harm with another fine show. However, you do question whether senior IAF officers reprimand their cadets using words like duffer and joker?

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is largely engaging but the crucial action scenes lack the intensity of a real critical situation.  We are still in a bind as to why no one is talking about Sreevidya Rajan, who was assigned similar duties like Saxena. Would that have been practical to include Rajan in this story? Or an academic presence would not have done justice to Rajan’s heroics?. There is a scene where Flight Lieutenant Saxena is walking with a colleague when they are saluted by a bunch of young girls.  There’s no name on her badge, but is that an acknowledgment of Rajan? However, we don’t see any other woman air force officer pressed into war zone in the film.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl [2020] is not a conventional war film. It simply salutes women power. Saxena’s journey inspires young girls to pursue their dream, whatever it is.  As the Arijit Singh-crooned track says aptly, “Hai saare jahan pe bhari, mere Bharat ki beti [The toughest in the world, the daughter of India].  ‘Bharat ki beti’ Janhvi Kapoor shows both heart and grit in a fitting tribute to the Bharat ki beti, Gunjan Saxena.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is currently streaming on Netflix.

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