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.