‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ review: soars and earns its emotional stars

Close on the heels of a biopic cloaked in maternal tug-of-war and humane epiphanies (Shakuntala Devi) comes another, this time enveloped by the dark clouds of war, but carried by the strong tailwinds of paternal propulsion. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl glides along on humor and good-natured storytelling by director Sharan Sharma, co-writing with Nikhil Mehrotra. And those war clouds? They’re more the gender-bias generated ones than what the deadly Kargil conflict kicked up. 

Janhvi Kapoor charges right into her role.

It’s apparent right from the opening that young Gunjan Saxena (Riva Arora) is fascinated by the sheer, vast, blue openness of the sky, and that her brother Anshuman (Aaryan Arora) has nothing but disdain for what he thinks is whimsical foolish tripe. For him, girls can’t be pilots. It’s their father, Colonel Anup Saxena (Pankaj Tripathi) who, a monolith of gender-equality, birches his son, wondering where he’s getting such rubbish from. Wherefrom, indeed? Is it the mother — Kirti, played by the superb, this gen’s genial Farida JalalAyesha Raza Mishra — who keeps getting cut up by her daughter’s fancy? Or is it something that the boy hears at school? Or both? Or is it the classic elder sibling-jealous-of-the-younger-sibling syndrome? When, the younger one seems to have been granted too much-perceived privilege just because she’s younger and more importantly, a girl? It’d have been interesting if director Sharma had paused to delve into that a bit. Because all of this comes into play right up to the very end of the movie. Suffice to say, cut to a few years later and age doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the siblings’ outlook and ambitions but solidified them, except that they’re now Janhvi Kapoor and Angad Bedi, the latter doing a solid for a small role, proving a sister will still need an elder brother’s hug, no matter what she achieves. 

Angad Bedi always shields Jhanvi , or so he thinks.

But the brother’s attitude is just the opening sortie for Gunjan who wants to fly planes at any cost, and with some comic-cuts that sound ridiculous on paper, but are surprisingly well — and breezily — carried off, and with some familial and benign skullduggery by father Anup, the girl joins the Indian Air Force (IAF). Even here, tellingly, Anshuman, now in the army, points out that it’s a man’s world out there, one that’s way far divergent than their father’s utopian equation of man equals woman equals job. At the Udhampur airbase, Gunjan’s quickly outwitted (and outnumbered), by the all-male pop., led by Flight Commander Dileep Singh (a superbly gruff Vineet Kumar Singh).

Janhvi Kapoor with the brilliant Pankaj Tripathi.

Here’s where director Sharma overplays his dramatic hand, adding some incredulous scenes of arm wrestling inside an IAF briefing room, or men turning the other way when they see Gunjan approach. There’s shades of struggle and race-against-time akin to that lovely gender-racial discriminatory race-to-the-moon drama, Hidden Figures. That movie was enjoyably manipulative, pushing all the right buttons at the right time. Once it’s past the boys-ragging the-lady-phase, Gunjan Saxena falls back into that groove too.

But there’s no doubt boys’ clubs exist. There’s also no doubt there’s glass ceilings across industries and the world. Gender roles are assigned and affixed. Period. There’s sexism and it’s in small, stabbing little ways that it leaves its marks on women. The movie would’ve been that much more effective had it let the discrimination remain as an existing process and mind-set, running in its veins rather than spurting out in obvious dramatics: the scene where Saxena asks for keys to her quarters is a lovely one. That it takes another man — Commanding Officer Gautam Sinha, played with superb heft and no-nonsense power by Manav Vij — to break the stalemate is also a subtle nudge to the system. (The IAF, has, of course, protested against the movie’s portrayal of this problem in its ranks.)

Jhanvi Kapoor is arm-twisted by Vineet Kumar Singh (standing).

Despite this quibble, Gunjan Saxena remains a movie with its heart in the right place, earning its emotional stars as it warms you with its Goldilocks approach — in a happy, not-extreme space, and yet deriving its geniality from two actors. In the titular role, Janhvi Kapoor is just right. She’s a mix of innocent, raw intent all through, and just that right, uncertain burst of energy as she lashes out against Dileep Singh and the boys’ gang. But it is Pankaj Tripathi, turning in one of the best performances this gloomy year, who uplifts the movie and makes it soar. As Gunjan’s father, he twinkles and nods his way into your heart. Nowhere does he overdo it (unlike John Stewart Eduri’s background score, though Amit Trivedi composes some truly lovely tracks) or gets across that his is an act for the screen. There’s a scene where he opens the door to a distraught Gunjan; in a flash, his lit-up expression, on seeing his daughter, switches to a dark cloud of concern, even as sunlight falls on his face. That’s a virtuoso playing your strings. But the best lesson he delivers? Sometimes there’s simply no point trying to change someone’s point of view. It’s much easier to stop drinking with them.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is streaming on Netflix and is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for war violence and intensity.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Director Sharan Sharma Time 1h 52min
Writers Sharan Sharma, Nikhil Mehrotra
Stars Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Vineet Kumar Singh, Ayesha Raza Mishra, Angad Bedi
Genres Action, Biography, Drama

Watch the trailer of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl here.