Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl (available on Netflix)

Director:  Sharan Sharma
Year: 2020
Language: Hindi (with English subtitles)  
Country: India
Genre: Biographical Drama film
Running Time: 112 minutes

The film is the true-life story of Gunjan Saxena who dreamed of becoming a pilot ever since she was a young girl. She finally enrolls in the Indian Air Force and makes her maiden rescue flight during the Kargil War in 1999. For viewers who are not familiar with the historical circumstances: the Kargil War was fought between India and Pakistan in the Kargil district of Kashmir along the ‘Line of Control’ (LOC) which constitutes the legally controlled border; established in 1947 when both India and Pakistan became independent countries. You can read more about the Kargil War here

Although the title of the film is hyped on the ‘Kargil’ aspect, it is really about one woman’s struggle to achieve her dreams in a male dominated culture that permeates family and society. The deeply embedded patriarchal system made it inconceivable that a woman could become a pilot, let alone serve in a national institution!

Society has gone a long way in recognizing women as individuals in their own right and capable of achieving anything, including become Presidents and Prime Ministers. However, larger swathes of the world still regard women simply as objects of procreation and central to upholding the ‘honour’ of the family unit. Girls can only dream of escaping the poverty and feudal traps they find themselves in and building careers and achieving their real goals in life. Instead, they are trapped at a very early age by the sexist culture, child labour, forced marriages or prostitution. This then is the societal background of the film’s storyline.

Born into a middle class Indian family, Gunjan finds herself fighting the odds since adolescence. Except for a liberal father who becomes her anchor and saviour in life, both her mother and brother insist that Gunjan’s place is in the kitchen and   marriage. At one point, although it is very clear that she wants to become a pilot, she is gifted a doll and her brother a plane! When she excels academically, she is dismayed realizing that insisting that  she still wants to become a pilot will seem a betrayal of her parents ideals. People attending a party in honour of her academic excellence are horrified by her choice.

She tries to enlist as a pilot but hits a wall as the officials keep demanding new requirements. Then one day, her father cleverly leaves a newspaper on her bed – it carries an advertisement in the local press for recruiting women into the Indian Air Force (IAF). She quickly puts her lifelong dream into action and becomes the sole selectee out of a bunch of potential women applicants. But once again, she becomes a victim of the ‘standards’ of the Air force which are based on the male physique; and is declared ‘ineligible’. Nevertheless, egged on by her remarkable father, she overcomes the odds and finally joins the IAF.

Has she just broken the glass ceiling? If she thought the resistance she had faced until now was tough she soon realizes that ‘she ain’t seen anything yet!’ Once in the Air Force proper and among the combat regiments, Gunjan comes face to face against the bastion of male dominance and sexism. There are no changing rooms for women and no toilets for women.  The dining room and lounge operate as a men’s club that is determined to keep the ‘weaker sex’ out of its helicopters and spheres of influence. No pilot would agree to fly with her resulting in her clocking very low flying hours. However, with her spirit of resistance and a little help from a senior pilot, Gunju gets to the very top. But it takes an almost suicidal combat mission by Gunju in the valley of Kargil to gain acceptance from the men. What a price to pay! She could have died! Instead she completes her mission with flying colours.

Not surprisingly, the film’s critical portrayal of the IAF struck a raw nerve with the IAF officials who complained to the Central Board of Film Certification of India over the alleged ‘undue negative portrayal’ of the IAF personnel. They stated that their branch of the IAF was the first to accept women and insisted that they had a gender-neutral workforce and did not tolerate gender biases in the force. Reacting to these comments by the IAF, Gunju clarified that while the ‘bias is not at an organizational level’…to deny its unbridled existence was pulling the wool over our eyes and undermined the grit of women officers.

The lyrics that run for approximately 25 minutes were written by Kausar Munir and composed by Amit Trivedi; and do great justice to the story line.

Internationally, the film has had rave reviews: Firstpost described the film to be a ‘deeply moving account of a remarkable woman’s heartbreaks and soaring triumph’. NDTV  lauded Pankaj Tripathi’s performance (who played the Father) and praised the film for sparing the audience a ‘spectacle of ungainly chest-thumping’ and presenting a ‘good old touching tale of a girl who dared to break free from her cage and fly away – a heroine we can cheer without resorting to a blood-curdling war cry’. Mike McCahill of The Guardian praised Kapoor’s portrayal of Gunju.

Watch the film – it has a feel good factor, which we all badly need in these depressing times!