Early on in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl when young Gunjan tells her folks for the first time that she wants to be a pilot, Anup Saxena, an army officer by himself, and Gunjan’s father very subtly tells his condescending elder son Anshuman “Jab plane ko faraq nahi padta ki use kaun udaa raha hai, to tumhe kyon padta hai barkhurdar..”. It is one heck of a statement delivered with the sweetest calmness, and immediately sets the tone of writer director Sharan Sharma‘s debut film. Full credit to him that he maintains that even tonality and pace throughout the film, and delivers a highly satisfying cinematic experience with a beautiful emotional core and a strong message, that challenges the ingrained patriarchy of our homes, our societies and our workplaces on one hand, and strongly rebukes the generic template of jingoistic patriotism on the other.
The later is an added bonus in the film that grounds itself brilliantly as the coming of age story of a bright but delicate young girl who has starry dreams of flying a plane from a very young age. She is fragile, she has her fears, she gets tentative and confused at times as life comes back strongly at her. But she has an unhinged passion to find her wings to fly. Infact IAF also ends up being an after thought for her when the expenses of the commercial flying course are beyond the capacity of her family. Her skepticism on her patriotic quotient at that juncture feels organic. “Mujhe to bas plane udana hain papa” she says, and honestly confesses that she does not feel the expected simmering desh bhakti at that point possibly needed for her to be a good fit as an Indian Air Force pilot. Her guardian angel father again comforts her by saying that all IAF needs is honest, truthful and competent officers, and that is all what a desh bhakt actually needs to be. A masterstroke there, coming from a film based on a war backdrop, in clinically demolishing the set notions of chest thumping jingoism so blatantly in abundance across our mainstream films and our everyday conversations of today.
The film’s smart scripting (by co-writers Nikhil Mehrotra and Sharan Sharma himself) ensures that the doting father, in army himself and hence within the system, delivers the most pertinent messages of the film, never ever deflecting from his calm, measured and extremely matured composure. Anup Saxena exemplifies how assertiveness is way different from aggression, soft composure doesn’t equate to weakness, and it is all about the clarity of the mind and the strength of the character to see things through. Unlike most other Indian biopics, especially of patriotic flavor, the protagonist here is spared of mouthing the heaviest of clap inducing dialogues, and hence Gunjan’s gradual metamorphosis never gets out of tone or jarring. At the same time, being her papa’s girl, she naturally inherits his composure, silent strength and determination, even if her vulnerable fragility at times gets a better out of her. When her own mother or brother try to clip her wings right at home, or when she feels ostracized in the IAF base camp at every step just because she is the first woman officer there, she stumbles at times, reaches out for her father at others, and eventually finds her own voice to question the deep rooted patriarchy straight into the eyes of stone cold egoistic superiority.
Gunjan’s constant fight is to prove that she is better than her peers to even be considered as good enough for her job and secure the confidence and respect of the deeply prejudiced world, that a competent officer like her should naturally demand. And that is where Janhvi Kapoor actually becomes the great meta casting for the central role. Just like the protagonist she plays, there was very little confidence in Janhvi that she could deliver this; and in spite of delivering a performance beautifully tailored to the needs of the script, she is in here to fight a long tailed battle against the preset prejudice of naysayers who won’t budge ground to give credit even when it is due. From a rather tentative debut in the first film, Janhvi has been on a steady growth path this year with two back to back heartfelt performances now. True, this film is a plump opportunity (and a lot of responsibility along with that), and it is great to witness the sincerity and passion with which Janhvi approaches Gunjan. While Sharan beautifully uses the youthful exuberance and delicate fragility of Janhvi to define the formative years of Gunjan, she in turn dives deep inwards to discover the tentativeness and vulnerability of the young dreamy girl without artificially trying to put on an imposed body language just for the sake of it. Watch out for her silent inward portrayal of fear, joy or heartbreak in the scenes of IAF selection interview, her eventual selection two weeks later, or the insinuating fist fight triggered by her senior in the class just to pull her down. Janhvi has the knack to emote more with less, and Sharan uses that to the fullest for most of the scenes. Yes she does stumble badly in one confrontational scene in a party, the weight of the altercation exposing her rough edges. Also, she needed to get more voice training done, again for the high octane situations, so that she could bring in additional sharpness to her communication back to the base during her war mission sequences.
Thankfully, the best portions of the film, which centers around an all heart emotional bond between the father and daughter suffers from no such hiccups. Pankaj Tripathi is definitely one of the finest actors working in the industry today, who again comes from the house of less-is-more kind of actors. He is scintillating in a brilliantly written role, and further elevates it with his inborn sweetness, decency, charm and lovable simplicity. As expected of him, he delivers the best performance of the film, and in the process also helps Janhvi to rise above her limitations and respond with as much honesty. The father daughter chemistry works like magic here and will definitely be remembered even years later when we recall the best father daughter relationships in hindi films.
The rest of the cast also holds ground firmly. Ayesha Raza as the mother is apt, while Angad Bedi does well to bring in the concerns of a worried brother, and the chauvinistic conditioning of a privileged man at the same time to his character. Manav Vij is excellent as the Commanding Chief in the IAF camp, being the only one there who holds the light for Gunjan’s confidence to soar, and we so wished to see a little more of him (knowing fully well that there wasn’t room for any more of him in the tight script). Vineet Kumar Singh is expectedly solid brimming with scathing chauvinism in every breath. Hope to see both Manav and him in more central roles in the future tapping into their severely underutilized potential.
While scoring heavily on its soothing emotional core, the film also does well technically on most fronts. Manush Nandan‘s cinematography brings the war zone alive, especially with the spectacular ariel shots of the choppers, and he also brings his own fresh perspective to infuse confidence into Gunjan’s journey of self discovery. The editing by Nitin Baid is tight that helps to hold our attention span all the time in spite of a relatively leisurely pace. Infact the pace helps us to soak in the feelings better, and leaves room to stay with a lump in the throat at multiple places. The costumes and make-up are kept appropriately sparse, while Aditya Kanwar‘s production design is effective to create the cosiness of a connected family, or the anxiety of the treacherous war terrain. We have heard Amit Trivedi deliver better overall albums in the past, but together with Kausar Munir and Rekha Bhardwaj, Dori Tuttiyan is pure magic. Even the other songs sound better in the film the way they fit in to the script, rather than how they felt stand alone just as songs. Together, under the leadership of their commanding officer Sharan Sharma, the sortie formation of this technical crew is synchronous, effective and easy on the eyes, ears and soul.
For all the gripe that we have for 2020, we have seen some beautiful stories of young women finding their wings this year in hindi films with Thappad, Chhapaak, Sir or Panga. Gunjan Saxena is an excellent addition to this group of high fliers. Like all these films, Gunjan Saxena also humbly acknowledges that these brilliant young women can conquer a world full of adversities and prejudice, all they need is one champion within the system who can support them with all they have. May every Gunju get a Papa like Anup to be that wind beneath her wings so that she can soar to the skies and reach the stars!
‘Bas ek baat kehni thi papa.. main aapko kabhi haarne.. kabhi haarne nahi doongi!‘
…says Gunjan in one of the best moments of the film. And she does not. In the historic Kargil war, Gunjan emerges as the champion winning multiple hearts with her determination, courage and focus. And the winning team of Sharan Sharma, Pankaj Tripathi and Janhvi Kapoor replicates that feat for the film! Kudos and a well deserved victory applause!
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl was released Direct to Digital on August 12th and is available for viewing on Netflix.
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