Gunjan Saxena, Netflix’s recent release about the first female to become an Indian IAF officer couldn’t have been timed better. There has been a cloudburst of ‘firsts’ in the cultural, social, and political spheres of our world for a couple of years, now. The ‘Me Too’ movement, which brought down seemingly unassailable corporations like The Weinstein Company, and media moguls like Harvey Weinstein, was a ‘first.’ Black Lives Matter as a massive, diverse, and spontaneous reaction to the brutal killing of a black man, was a ‘first.’ The nomination of Kamala Harris, a mixed-race, half black, half South Asian child of immigrants as a running mate for Jo Biden, was a ‘first.’
So Gunjan Saxena’s achievement, a ‘first’ that happened 20 years ago, when the accepted norm for girls was that ‘they didn’t fly or become pilots,’ was a momentous one for Indian women; however, it was largely ignored by the film industry until now, when biopics on heroic women and girls who defy the odds (Dangal, Neerja, Shakuntala Devi) are all the rage.
Gunjan’s story is so rich with emotion and dramatic material that it could tell itself. Director Sharan Sharma does a good job of stitching all her most important milestones into a compelling biopic that glues the viewer to the screen. However, the process of bringing so much abundant biographical material together leaves little room for anything other than a feminist- history-making narrative where odds are stacked up, one by one, against Gunjan’s passion to fly. There is, of course, the usual Bollywood melodrama around narratives depicting women overcoming daunting obstacles to their dreams. We learn little about Gunjan, the person—it’s all about Gunjan, the pioneering Braveheart. When the real Gunjan Saxena was approached with the project on her life she wondered why anyone would want to make a film on her. She didn’t consider her barrier-breaking and her bravery in the Kargil mission she was a part of, that exceptional—just a simple fact of life. Simply a commitment to her passion and to her duty as an IAF officer.
The first few scenes set the tone of the film. We see her growing up in Lucknow with a doting father, a traditional mother, and an overprotective and chauvinistic older brother who is always reminding her that she’s a girl( as if that’s hard to forget in any Indian milieu) who can’t do stuff boys do—like becoming pilots. That time seems quaint now, in retrospect, when we’ve shared memes about the first all-woman Air India crew (pilots and air hostesses). We see Gunjan’s father reprimanding her brother: he is clearly on his daughter’s side.
When the young Gunjan is invited to view the cockpit of the plane she and her brother are flying in, she is awestruck and hooked for life.
She informs her family that she has no use for academics, she just wants to learn to fly.
We see a series of obstacles being thrown at her over the years and, with each one, her determination to achieve her dream grows stronger. The biggest strength of Sharan Sharma’s direction lies in the recreation of her relationship with her father, who nurtures her hopes and dreams and shields her from her mother’s shrill demands that she become like ‘normal’ girls and just study until she gets married. In the 1980s, marriage for women was still the holy grail, the mountaintop where their aspirations landed and began a slow slide down into oblivion. Gunjan’s father is clearly ahead of his time and his community in his ambition for his daughter and this creates some of the most delightful scenes in the movie, nuanced and interspersed with humor.
When Gunjan is finally accepted into the Air Force Academy she faces brutal incidents of sexism, made worse by the fact that she is the only female on campus. This part of the movie needs to be shown to every little girl and boy, as an instructive lesson in how destructive gender bias can be. The Indian Air Force Academy has publicly protested the portrayal as inaccurate and exaggerated; however, Gunjan Saxena confirms her experience of fighting the mental barrier male officers had against granting her full acceptance as an equal.
Jhanvi Kapoor did a great job of portraying Gunjan with authenticity—from her adolescent chubbiness to the weight she lost to qualify for the IAF Academy to her lack of makeup throughout the movie. However, her rage at the extreme sexism and bullying she faced as the only female member of the Air Force Academy seemed very scripted. This was the weakest portion of Jhanvi’s otherwise convincing performance.
I would give this movie a big thumbs up, especially for family viewing with young, impressionable girls and boys, who will learn about the importance of understanding that gender is simply a biological fact, not a limitation to any form of achievement.
Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.