Hindi war films were once insufferably long. Even Lakshya (2004), a coming-of-age story backdropped on the Kargil War, took a languid 185 minutes to reach the summit. By contrast, Gunjan Saxena—building up to the same event but based on a real-life character—runs a little under two hours. The briskness, however welcome, only costs the film. We bounce so swiftly from event to event, that there’s little time to get to know the protagonist closely. The result is a biopic by compression, a life reduced to a series of facts.
The fanciful pace is promptly established.
On a flight in 1984, Gunjan, barely ten, is ushered into the cockpit. Instantly, her dreams are shaped: she wants to become a pilot, her childhood wish maturing into a serious ambition as she grows up. Gunjan’s father (Pankaj Tripathi) is supportive of her dreams. He helps her train and crack into the first batch of female pilots in the Air Force. But her brother, Anshuman, also in the army, is dismissive: a thorny mix of condescension and overprotectiveness, wonderfully sold by Angad Bedi.
The family drama is refurbished in the following chapters. At the academy, Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) is put down by various authority figures. A stern instructor (Vineet Kumar Singh) tells her she’s “too weak” for combat. Her batchmates cook up ridiculous excuses to avoid flying with her. Manav Vij plays a hardened commander with an eye for talent. All this is potent stuff — a glimpse into the sustained pushback faced by pioneering officers like Gunjan Saxena, and which women aspirants still continue to face.
Yet, nothing truly clicks. The problem lies in the way director Sharan Sharma and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra keep raising the stakes. Gunjan faces sexism at home, at the academy and finally on the battlefield (a politician on TV argues that female recruits are a liability). The mounting odds leave little room for Gunjan to grow as a character. She’s a heroine all through: a model of braveness, determination and grit. When she calls out a superior on his fragile masculinity, it’s the film talking on Gunjan’s behalf, not a young girl risking her hopes and dreams.
Janhvi, in her third feature appearance, takes time easing up to the screen. She spends her early scenes wrapped up in her character’s ambitions (Pankaj Tripathi, acutely aware of this deficit, compensates with his trademark humour). Yet, once the action picks up, Janhvi manages to hold her own, darting across the frame and pausing to catch her breath. Her agility on the tarmac is let down by the flying scenes: a series of dull sorties followed by a rescue operation in the hills.
In Lakshya, there’s a scene where Hrithik Roshan absconds from military school. Gunjan pulls something similar here, though not for a lack of will. Once home, she catches up with a friend who’s getting married — a prompt for Gunjan to not give up and settle down. The idea is echoed throughout: the notion that a girl must chase her dreams or ‘retreat into the kitchen’. It’s a binary we encounter often: a rigid stance for movies meant to liberate, not restrict.
The film’s best moment does not involve Gunjan or her squad. Late one night, Anshuman joins his father for a drink. He complains that he has always indulged Gunjan, allowed her to play cricket with the boys and watch late-night shows. “I feel you care more about her happiness than her safety,” Anshuman says. Pankaj Tripathi blinks, then murmurs softly: “I think you should not drink.”
Film: Gunjan Saxena - The Kargil Girl
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Vineet Kumar Singh
Director: Sharan Sharma | Streaming on: Netflix