Starring: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Ayesha Raza Mishra, Vineet Kumar Singh, Manav Vij
Director: Sharan Sharma
Scripted by 'Dangal' co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra and directed by debutant Sharan Sharma, 'Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl' joins a growing trend of Bollywood biopics. Thankfully, movie mogul Karan Johar sheds his usual excesses to produce a measured and inspirational look at the story of India's first female Air Force pilot in combat.
Star kid Janhvi Kapoor grabs the lead role in this latest Netflix original, only her second on screen after her 2018 debut 'Dhadak'. Delivering a sturdy performance, she takes us on an emotive journey beginning in 1984 where we see Gunjan as an excitable young schoolgirl growing up in a middle-class family in Lucknow. Despite her dream of flying planes being laughed at by her soldier brother Anshuman (Bedi) and dismissed by her conservative mother Kirti (Mishra), Gunjan perseveres with her mission.
Determined to earn her wings, the ambitious Miss Saxena is supported in her efforts by her doting father, Colonel Anup Saxena, played by the always-superb Pankaj Tripathi. He encourages his daughter to overlook outdated cultural expectations and a biased Indian society and pushed her to work hard to achieve her ultimate goal. It's her passion rather than patriotism that eventually leads to her passing the gruelling physical and psychological tests to join the Indian Air Force.
Little does Gunjan know that her biggest battle lies not in the dangerous helicopter missions she will eventually fly during the Kargil war of 1999, but the blatant sexism she faces from the very institution that recruits her. Unfortunately, it is the prejudices of her fellow aviators and tutors that make her professional life a misery. From being left out of crucial helicopter training missions to being refused access to female changing rooms, Gunjan confronts the tough situations she faces with grit and grace.
As with all good biopics, it is the protagonist's inner struggle and voyage of discover that counts, not the end goal. With Gunjan Saxena we see the real-life tale of a courageous woman who won the respect she deserved and earned her place on the battlefield, alongside the men, and ultimately in Indian history.
Kudos to Kapoor for portraying her minus the usual Bollywood melodrama. It's only a shame we don't see or hear from any of the other female fighter pilots who must have been recruited amongst the first batch in the 1990s alongside our heroine. It would have been interesting to see the dynamic they share when faced with gender discrimination.
Nonetheless, Gunjan Saxena proves to be a worthy superwoman for our times.
by Jaspreet P. Bajaj
*iGlobal Review Series