On the heels of Shakuntala Devi comes another literal-minded biopic. But where Anu Menon’s film muddied its emotional waters and switched around its timelines, Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena tells a simple and more or less linear story. After opening with Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) on her first mission during the 1999 Kargil War, the film loops back to the start and maps a straight line from her childhood dreams of becoming a commercial pilot to her joining the air force to being one of the first two Indian women to pilot a helicopter in combat. This uncomplicated approach seems to mirror the film’s view of its central character, who isn’t shown as exceptional, only exceptionally determined.
When Gunjan is taken into the cockpit of the flight she’s on by a kindly stewardess, it sparks an all-consuming desire in her to become a pilot. Her older brother, Anshuman, tells her girls can’t do that, but her father (Pankaj Tripathi) is encouraging. When she’s old enough, she applies to flying school, but is told she needs to finish 12th grade first. Two years later, she re-applies—and finds out she needs to graduate from college. Three years later, she meets all the requirements but doesn’t know the fees have increased to the point that her family can’t afford it.
This passage—played for laughs, with the same sad-sack clerk disappointing her every time—is an example of how a realistic film must decide whether it can stretch credulity in order to have a little fun. It seems altogether unlikely that Gunjan would be this uninformed about the means to achieving her one ambition in life—so uninformed that she’d repeatedly turn up without finding out the rules of admission. But there’s no mulling over lost opportunities, as the film immediately offers her another chance to fly. Her father suggests she joins the air force and, despite the misgivings of Anshuman (Angad Bedi), who’s now in the army, and her mother, who wants her to “settle", she applies, joins the academy and successfully completes training.
Gunjan finds her brother’s scepticism mirrored and magnified once she becomes an officer. As the first woman on the base, she’s ostracized and condescended to by her fellow officers. She misses her flight training several times as there isn’t a women’s bathroom and she has nowhere to change—an idea seemingly lifted from Hidden Figures, a film about the first female African-American mathematicians at NASA. This passage should be the film’s heart but is hampered by the lack of subtlety and wit. When Gunjan tries to talk to a group of officers at a party, they walk away from her one by one—a scene that would have seemed stagey in the 1950s. “What if there's an emergency and she starts crying?" a captain asks in another scene, trying to get out of flying with her.
This is not a film interested in people as complex beings. Instead, it deploys each character either as an outright detractor or cheerleader for Gunjan. Her father is unconditionally supportive, while her brother remains dismissive of her even after she becomes an officer. All the men on the base keep her at arm’s length; not one of them is shown as vaguely sympathetic. Flight commander Dileep Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) deliberately keeps her from logging flying hours. Only the commanding officer (Manav Vij) recognises her potential, but instead of ordering Dileep Singh and the rest to do their job, he takes her training on himself. Yet, there's a politeness to the discrimination, as if the makers didn't want to make the armed forces look too close-minded.
Kapoor gives a quiet, unassuming performance. There’s a softness to it that skirts military clichés, but not enough steel when the film calls it. Variation is a problem as well—there isn't much that separates Kapoor’s disappointed face from her angry face from her game face. Her big outburst, when it finally comes, gives the impression of lines learnt and carefully delivered and not someone driven to desperate, career-threatening anger. There’s not much Bedi or Vineet Singh can do to make their one-note sexist characters interesting. It falls to Tripathi to elevate the film, which he does with gentleness and humour. It’s an atypical portrait of a former army man: mild-mannered, loosely strung, someone who registers protest not by barking orders but by getting up from the table in the middle of a meal, saying he’d planned to eat light anyway.
Kargil comes later in the film than I expected. Gunjan, having never flown a combat mission before, finds herself at the centre of a dangerous helicopter rescue, with an Indian Army platoon stranded and under fire. The sequence, filmed in Georgia, lasts only 8 minutes, a rather small amount of time to dedicate to the film’s most dramatic incident (and only war scene). It feels hurried and truncated and not entirely convincing, especially with the memory of Uri’s exceptional action scenes still fresh (also, someone forgot to remove the text saying "Great Battles"—an NDTV episode on the war aired in 2006—from the Kargil footage playing on TV).
Uri, too, had at its centre an army family—Vicky Kaushal’s major, his late father and brother-in-law. The rhythms of that household are essentially militaristic: talk of service and duty, clipped speech, emotions held in reserve. The Saxena family, on the other hand, could be mistaken for any civilian household. Given the surfeit of aggressive patriotism in recent Hindi films, it’s interesting to see Sharma and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra hold back in this regard. My favourite scene is when Gunjan admits to her father, the night before she leaves home for her training, that she doesn’t want to be in the armed forces out of a desire to serve her country: she just wants to fly. His reply is telling. “Do you think the air force wants people who yell Bharat mata ki jai?" To see a Hindi film dial down rhetoric these days feels downright subversive.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is on Netflix.