Movie Review: Gunjan Saxena — The Kargil Girl (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Gunjan Saxena on Netflix

Gunjan Saxena didn’t set out to be the Indian Air Force’s first woman combat pilot. She just wanted to fly. While the movie based on her life — Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl — shows some of the key events in her pathbreaking career, it focuses more on how her extraordinary willpower and the support of her devoted father helped her make history.

Gunjan grew up in the 1980s wanting to be a pilot. A clever song sequence shows young Gunjan (played by cute Riva Arora) wearing aviator sunglasses and playing with toy planes to the tune of “Mann Ki Dori.” Lyrics like, “From the moment I saw you, I just can’t get you out of my head,” describe first love, but it’s love between a girl and an airplane.

Her father, Anup (Pankaj Tripathi), believes his daughter can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. He’s determined to help her, even over the objections of Gunjan’s mother Kirti (Ayesha Raza Mishra) and Gunjan’s older brother Anshuman (played by Aaryan Arora as a kid and Angad Bedi as an adult.) Mom and brother claim to want to save Gunjan from heartbreak in a world that limits the options for girls and women, but their attitudes just reinforce those limitations.

As she grows up, Gunjan (played as an adult by Janhvi Kapoor) proves herself an overachiever, topping her classes and doing whatever is required to reach her goal. Joining the Air Force’s first class of women pilots turns out to be the quickest way for her to get in the air. When Gunjan fails the Air Force fitness exam by being seven kilograms overweight, she and Anup train using a diet and exercise routine movie superstar Rekha mentioned in a magazine.

The relationship between father and daughter is the heart of Gunjan Saxena. First-time writer-director Sharan Sharma took the advice of his co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra, who previously wrote great family-oriented films like Dangal, Panga, and Chhichhore. Sharma told First Post that, given the volume of excellent source material, “the biggest difficulty in a film of this nature is deciding what should not go into it.” Given how delightful Tripathi and Kapoor are together, focusing the story on their bond was clearly the right move.

Gunjan Saxena is only Kapoor’s third lead role, and she proves herself completely capable of carrying a feature film. She makes it looks easy, whether the challenges facing Gunjan are physical or emotional.

Whatever Anshuman’s motivations were for warning Gunjan against being a pilot, he was right that not everyone would be pleased about her choice. She realizes that after she becomes the first woman at her assigned Air Force base. From petty annoyances like not having a dedicated restroom to outright hostility from some of her fellow soldiers, she faces the extent to which some men will go to exclude women from certain spaces. A scene in which Gunjan’s commanding officer Dileep Singh (Viineet Kumar) finally tells her why he doesn’t think she belongs is heartbreaking. Kapoor handles the scene with grace and finesse.

The film’s action sequences when Gunjan is called into service during the Kargil War are well-executed and thrilling. The cinematic license Sharma takes with events ramps up the excitement and emotional resonance.

There’s a lovely scene in which Gunjan discusses the meaning of patriotism with her father, asking whether the desire to fly is sufficient reason to join the Air Force. Anup — a career military man himself — replies that patriotism isn’t measured by who shouts slogans the loudest, but by whether one does their duty to the best of their ability. It’s a fitting way to distill the real Gunjan Saxena’s approach to her life and a fine way to describe Janhvi Kapoor’s portrayal of her.


14 thoughts on “Movie Review: Gunjan Saxena — The Kargil Girl (2020)

  1. rathchakra

    Such a quiet movie that kept the narrative focused on gunjan. And rightfully said, janhvi carried it on her inexperienced shoulders. Her mother would have been so proud. I could almost see her real life mother in pankaj tripathi.

  2. John Davidson

    I am glad I read your review as I had written off this movie after checking with IMDB. This movie is much better than the rating they give it. I wonder if sexism plays a role and also if some people felt it lacked enough action. Some of the opinions expressed said they felt it gave the wrong impression of the Indian Air Force. Anytime someone tries to break a discrimination barrier they are bound to encounter resistance so I found it believable and feel her efforts probably led to better outcomes. I see by the photos during the credits that the actress and her father match the real ones. Again if you liked this one you really should see “Uyare”. The lead there is really well suited to the role, but noteworthy is the construction of the plot–watch without reading too much as the underlying theme will hit a little stronger. The woman pilot doesn’ t have too much sexist problems, but runs into a frightening conflict.

    1. Kathy

      I’m glad you gave this a shot, John! And thanks for the movie recommendation. For films with female lead characters or women-centric subjects, I always take IMDb ratings with a grain of salt. They’re always skewed by sexism. And it’s pretty funny that people are getting fussed about the image of the Air Force when, according to the movie, they didn’t even allow women to become pilots until the mid-1990s. Sexism existed then and it exists now — pretending it doesn’t is what allows it to persist.

      1. Pomita

        There’s a different reason for this one’s low imdb rating. Recently an Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput allegedly died of suicide, and happened to be an industry outsider, with reports that he was bullied and sidelined by the Bollywood ‘insider group’. This has led to a backlash among the public against some members of the insider group (this movie is produced by one such production house) and against actors who are ‘nepotism products’ (sons/daughters of industry people). Since Janhvi is the daughter of late famous actor Sridevi, there have been vociferous calls for boycotting her movies. This movie has suffered from the immediate effect of this backlash, and has been given mass low ratings by large sections of people just for these reasons.

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  4. Nisha

    I loved the movie so much. Pankaj Tripathi and Manav Vij were my favorites in the movie and Riva is the cutest child actor ever

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