In 1999, India was at war with Pakistan, and women in the Indian Air Force were about to create history with their bravado and fearlessness. Despite the general opinion that ‘there is no place for women’ in the Defence, the IAF recruited two women officers for the first time that year to serve in combat in the Kargil War. The duo – Flight Lieutenants Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan – would be entrusted with key operations, including reconnaissance missions and evacuation of injured soldiers from the frontline.
Cut to 2020, and the newsfeed is once again abuzz with crucial updates about women in the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence, after much back and forth, issued a formal government sanction letter last month, granting permanent commission of women officers in the Indian Army. In addition, women soldiers recently assumed duty to guard the Line of Control (LoC), a first in India.
These milestones, however, follows decades of bias against women in the armed forces.
In a way, this makes the latest Netflix film, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl quite relevant to the times, and not just because its release coincides with the 74th Indian Independence Day, which falls on Saturday August 15.
The biopic, starring actor Janhvi Kapoor in the titular role, celebrates the life and achievements of the Indian Air Force officer, who was just 24 when she served in the Kargil War (1999) and was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for her valour. Poignantly, and without harping on overt nationalistic sentiments, the film sheds light on the many struggles faced by women officers and the culture of sexism and misogyny in the armed forces.
What makes Gunjan Saxena a must-watch
Of late, India has been on a biopic overdrive - Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi, which released a few weeks ago on Amazon Prime, will soon be followed by Kangana Ranaut’s Thalaivi (based on former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s life), ’83 (based on Kapil Dev’s life), and Sardar Udham Singh, which features Vicky Kaushal as the eponymous freedom fighter.
While most of the titles in this lot have “inspirational and based on real-life” as the common theme, there is something markedly different about Gunjan Saxena. The biopic, first-time director Sharan Sharma’s fruit of labour, celebrates a national hero, but steers clear of the undercurrents of nationalism. Instead, it takes a deep dive into the culture of sexism and gender-based discrimination that exists everywhere, regardless of the geography or the industry.
As a result, as much of a delight a measured and restrained Janhvi Kapoor is on screen, the scenes where her character is systemically excluded from the ‘boys club,’ end up being heart-wrenching. No separate washrooms and changing rooms are just the tip of the iceberg; the real struggle begins when the sorties are cancelled one after the other, and Gunjan continues to remain earth-bound.
One scene, in particular, takes the cake with its subtle portrayal of misogyny, when Gunjan is challenged to an arm-wrestling match to prove her merit. Over and over again, the IAF officer is made to lose in a one-sided match, evocative of an unfair system where the very concept of equality is skewed.
It’s not women vs men, the real fight is different
In an interview, the real Gunjan Saxena has said there was no separate washroom for women at the Udhampur IAF Station, where she was first posted.
In order to change into her flying overalls, Gunjan and her female colleague would take turns guarding their makeshift changing room. All of this would eventually come to an end, with IAF recognising the need to welcome women into the air force.
The biopic highlights these positive changes in the third part of the narrative. By then, the audience is already made familiar with the different phases in the journey of the first woman IAF officer. As the events fall in place, viewers are given glimpses of key characters who shaped the journey of Gunjan Saxena.
In Pankaj Tripathi, we find an ever-supportive father; in Angad Bedi, an elder sibling who wants to shield his sister from the realities of the world; in Vineet Kumar Singh’s portrayal of Fight Commander Dileep, we discover sexism driven by fear; and in Manav Vij’s depiction of Commanding officer Gautam Sinha, a counter to the sexism.
As Janhvi Kapoor takes flight with the ambitious biopic, faring well if not spectacularly, it is this mix of male characters who add shades to the story. If one stands for the inherent misogyny, the other represents a more forward-thinking school of thought. It is only after a careful observation, that it is revealed, the real struggle is not between the genders but against prejudices. And women can be as much a part of this system as men can be a part of the fight against the discrimination.
(Edited by Athira Nair)