Tag Archives: Nikhil Mehrotra

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

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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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.

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Movie Review: Panga (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Even with only a few feature films under her belt, writer-director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has proven herself one of the most skilled makers of feel-good films out there. Her latest, Panga, follows the everyday struggles of a sweet family whose matriarch returns to the athletic career she left to raise her child.

Retiring from India’s national kabbadi team at age twenty-five wasn’t Jaya’s (Kangana Ranaut) plan when she found out she was pregnant. She had the full support of her husband Prashant (Jassi Gill) to resume her captaincy as soon as she was fit to do so. But when their son Adi was born premature and with a number of ailments, Jaya put all of her focus on raising her little boy.

Seven years later, Adi (Yagya Bhasin) is mostly fit and increasingly independent. Prashant tells his son about the life Jaya had before she became a mom — a history that Jaya has evidently never shared with the boy. Understanding what Jaya sacrificed for the family and excited by the prospect of having a professional athlete for a mother, Adi convinces Jaya to try and make a comeback.

Rather than manufacture a bunch of obstacles to put in Jaya’s way, Tiwari and her co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra keep Jaya’s journey realistic while mining the scenario for as much drama as possible. Doing so allows for an insightful examination of gendered divisions of labor within a household. Jaya threw herself fully into being a mom and a homemaker when Adi was born, but she still has a job outside of the house. Kabbadi teams in India are often sponsored by companies like railways, and Jaya kept her job selling train tickets even after her playing career ended.

As capable and helpful as both Prashant and Adi are, the house is still Jaya’s domain. How is she supposed to transfer seven years of accumulated knowledge to Prashant in the days before she heads to training camp? While their lives obviously won’t fall apart if the beds go unmade, it goes to show how we undervalue the effort it takes to make homemaking seem automatic.

Prashant’s promotion to household manager also highlights how removed many fathers are from the social networks that make child-rearing easier. He learns to rely on his neighbor and his cranky mother-in-law (played by Neena Gupta). He asks to be invited into the WhatsApp group for moms at Adi’s school.

A theme Tiwari introduced in her first feature, Nil Battey Sannata, and revisits in Panga is that of children coming to view their parents as individuals, not just their caretakers. Adi is mature enough to understand that playing kabbadi makes his mother happy, and that her happiness will require some inconvenience on his part. Yet he’s not so mature that he’s above throwing a tantrum when his dad screws up his makeup for the talent show or sulking when his mom has to sit on the bench during a game. It’s solid character writing.

What the story wants us to appreciate more than anything is that this family is nice. They are helpful, quick with a joke, and willing to make sacrifices for each other. They have supportive friends, especially Jaya’s former teammate Meenu (Richa Chadda) and her new teammate Nisha (Megha Burman). These strong bonds reinforce the feeling that this is a family that deserves happiness. The acting across the board is very good, with little Yagya Bhasin providing some great laughs.

Panga‘s kabbadi scenes are quite fun, emphasizing the teamwork required for success without feeling preachy. Selfishly, I would have appreciated a scene where Jaya explains the sport’s rules to Adi, but there’s more than enough context provided for kabbadi newbies like myself to understand the tension during the matches. This is a decent starter movie for Bollywood newcomers — and anyone in need of a cinematic pick-me-up.

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