Gunjan Saxena starring Janhvi Kapoor is a benchmark for biopics in Hindi Cinema

Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl has a lot to offer. It’s a one of a kind film!

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is not the story of a girl who wanted to fight a war. It’s a far cry from that. Director Sharan Sharma and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra’s film is simply about a girl who wants to become a pilot. That’s all. That she becomes India’s first woman combat pilot in the IAF is a consequence of her dreams, of her passion, and we are told that early on. In one of the scenes in the film, Janhvi Kapoor’s Gunjan asks her father (Pankaj Tripathi) if she’s doing something wrong. She tells him her dream is to fly, and there is no ounce of patriotism in her. Will it be wrong, she questions. To this, Tripathi’s Anup replies, “do you think IAF admits those who shout Bharat Mata ki Jai the loudest?” He then tells her how true patriotism is in honesty and humanity, and eventually, that’s what also becomes of the film. Here, more than the war, we see what it took for Gunjan to become a woman in combat, rather, the first woman in combat. It’s an interesting premise, and something that could’ve gone wrong very easily, but Sharma and Mehrotra’s writing and the former’s direction makes this film one of the best biopics coming out of Hindi cinema in recent times.

Biopics, especially those based on women often tend to be a war cry for feminism, and not so subtly. Priyanka Chopra’s Mary Kom, Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi and many more films have always fought for women’s rights while being very explicit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Janhvi Kapoor’s Gunjan Saxena, doesn’t even attempt to be explicit. Her character is so naive and honest, that it is difficult to even expect dialogues like “main udna chahti hoon” from her. It never comes, and that is the very genius of the film. Even when she is at an all men base, at no point is the want for equal rights explicit. It’s always subtle, and perhaps that’s what makes it so powerful. Even when Kapoor has a monologue and lectures a bunch of drunk men on their fake toxic masculinity, it doesn’t seem inorganic. And none of it is about patriotism, it’s all about respect for her. She’s grown up in a home where her father has always raised her as he raised his son, so maltreatment from the outside world, just because she is a woman, is something new for her. And yet, not once does Gunjan become a beacon of feminism, because she doesn’t want to. She just wants to be a pilot, that’s the only dream she knows. We know that subconsciously, she did become a role model for many women, but her aim is never that. When she’s told that she has to go for war, she’s excited about flying, and nothing else. When she comes back from war and her brother salutes her, she hugs him – that’s who she is,. Not an Air Force officer, but a girl with dreams.

Blaming Gunjan Saxena for promoting nepotism would’ve been valid had it not been a good film, had Janhvi Kapoor not acted well. But the truth is, this is a good performance, in a good film. So we can keep the hate at bay and watch the film for what it is.

Sharan Sharma’s film probes well into the ’90s with references to the iconic Tuffy from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Rekha’s weight loss for a role, Shahrukh Khan’s entry in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – it’s all there. But Gunjan Saxena never becomes a typical Dharma film. It doesn’t even try to. Instead, Sharma uses these references from the ’90s to highlight the patriarchal tendencies of these films, and even the times. Gunjan’s brother (Angad Bedi) and mother (Ayesha Raza) are both against her dreams. He thinks of her safety, and the mother is concerned about her marriage. Bedi’s Anshuman constantly reminds Gunjan that the IAF is not for women. Upon seeing a picture of Gunjan with 10 other male pilots, he tells her that what he sees in the photograph aren’t 11 pilots, but 10 pilots and one woman. At work, she’s treated as the “other”. There’s no toilet for women, no place for her to even change, absolutely no one (from her juniors) want to salute her as they do to her male counterparts and worst than them all (for her), no one wants to fly with her. Forget flying, the men don’t even talk to her, or have their meals with her. A lot of her struggle at the workplace reminded me of Hidden Figures, which talks about what it means to be a woman of colour in NASA.

Janhvi Kapoor in stills from the film

For me, that’s what Gunjan Saxena is about. It’s about women making their space in this world, which, by the way, they deserve, irrespective of them asking for it. While it is the story of the IAF’s first lady officer, it’s a lot about the respect women command at the work place. It’s about ingrained misogyny and toxic masculinity, both of which we need to unlearn so that women like Gunjan can make their mark in the world. That they anyway will is a different conversation all together, but what we need to do is respect them and their dreams – at home or at work. And dear men, there’s a lot we need to do, beginning with accepting women above us in the workplace as we would accept any man. Not just above, even those who are equals need to be treated as equals. And if that’s not where you can begin, start at home, as does Pankaj Tripathi’s Anup.

One of the many geniuses of the writing lies in the setting of some important scenes. Most conversations between Gunjan and her father take place at home – a supposed area of expertise of women. Even in the home, it’s the kitchen which plays an important role in their relationship – whether it’s stealing cassatta ice cream or identifying masalas. There’s a lot that you will have to look for in these simple, yet powerful and empowering scenes.

Not once does Gunjan become a beacon of feminism, because she doesn’t want to. She just wants to be a pilot, that’s the only dream she knows.

If the writing and direction of Gunjan Saxena are the layers of the cake, the performances are the icing. Vineet Kumar, Manav Vij, Angad Bedi, Ayesha Raza as supporting actors are all great. Each one of them are given layered, well written characters, and all of them perform with a certain naturalness. Pankaj Tripathi and Janhvi Kapoor triumph them all. Tripathi plays Gunjan’s father, Anup. Anup is considerate, kind, affectionate and even though he knows that sending his daughter, or even his son, into war is risky, but he wants them to fulfil their dreams. In a sequence, where Gunjan has to lose 7 kgs in 15 days, he trains with her so that she doesn’t lose her morale. When she comes back crying to him, he tells her this is a battle he too has lost. That’s the kind of father he is – perfect. As is Pankaj Tripathi. Even when he’s not doing anything, there is so much that Tripathi ends up doing. What a rare and gifted performer!

Walking shoulder to shoulder with him is Janhvi Kapoor. She does falter at some points, but there’s less to complain here. As Gunjan Saxena, she is a terrific revelation, and proof that the future of Hindi cinema is in good hands. Gunjan’s dream is to fly, not fight for the country. Similarly, Kapoor also seems to want to perform and not necessarily be a feminist icon leading a female-oriented film. She just wants to act and you see it in her – in her eyes, in the way she moves, talks. Gunjan is both timid and confident at the same time, whether it’s at home or at the workplace, and Kapoor taps into the difference of just that and performs as she hasn’t performed before (in the two films she’s been a part of). And I don’t know if it’s just me, or there are many who think like me, but I do see a great deal of the late Sridevi in Janhvi Kapoor, and I don’t just speak of the looks. But the sincerity, the earthy-ness, the dedication, and also the hunger. And most importantly, the respect – for herself and her craft. In times when the conversation around nepotism is so toxic, it is good to see Janhvi Kapoor perform as she has in Gunjan Saxena. Even otherwise, this is a performance to look up to. Watch out for her scenes with Pankaj Tripathi. They’re oh-my-god-I-am-going-to-cry emotional, and, they are! I don’t usually cry in films, but while watching Gunjan Saxena, I did shed a couple of tears.

Gunjan Saxena is a film one needs to watch, irrespective of who is starring in it and which production house has produced it. It takes a lot of blood and sweat to make a film, and a good film is a good film, irrespective of who is in it, and this is that film. Blaming Gunjan Saxena for promoting nepotism would’ve been valid had it not been a good film, had Janhvi Kapoor not acted well. But the truth is, this is a good performance, in a good film. So we can keep the hate at bay and watch the film for what it is.

Finally, don’t watch Gunjan Saxena as a usual biopic, because it’s not the story of a woman in armour. It is, in fact, the story of a little girl who dared to dream….

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