Director: Sharan Sharma
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Vineet Kumar Singh
Streaming on Netflix from August 12
Stars: 3 out of 5
Here’s the deal. Everything about Gunjan Saxena, India’s first female combat pilot who emerged a trooper in the Kargil War after battling stereotypes and biases, is stirring enough to warrant a Bollywood biopic.
After all, what’s not to love about a spirited young girl who yearns to be a pilot right from her childhood and fights to see her dreams soar along with her doting dad, her biggest cheerleader?
‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ is meant to be a searing portrait of middle-class India’s grit and how smashing the patriarchy isn’t easy for a woman.
It works most of the time and Janhvi Kapoor in the titular role secures a smooth landing. Be warned, her wide-eyed expression might feel over-exploited, but she injects grace and vulnerability in spades. The stirring drama takes you into a world where a woman is fighting for her place on earth and in the skies.
Director Sharan Sharma, who takes a stab at spearheading his first full-length feature, seems to be keenly aware of this biopic’s feel-good, fuzzy potential and goes about milking the opportunity from the word go.
There’s nothing startling, dark or twisted about this real-life drama. Even the disturbing scenes where Saxena, the only woman in an all-male aviation college, has to fight for a changing room is made palatable. The toxic locker room talk by her hyper-masculine college mates is just skimmed upon.
A lot of effort seems to have been pumped into making this film edible and entertaining.
While the film trains the spotlight mainly on Kapoor as this pilot hopeful, it’s her on-screen father Anup, played brilliantly by Pankaj Tripathi, who had my heart.
He’s the wind beneath Saxena’s wings not just in her life, but in the film too. His superlative performance elevates this film into a watchable feature. The scene in which he picks his emotional daughter out of the dumps when she fails the round of medical tests to become a pilot strikes home.
In an effort to lose a few extra kilos, the adorable father-daughter both embark on a ‘Rekha diet’ and those scenes bring a smile to your face.
The inclusion of Bollywood pop cultural references in the narrative is a smart move and makes ‘Gunjan Saxena’ incredibly relatable. But the highlight of this film is her father’s vitriolic reaction when his daughter talks about getting married, ‘settling down in life’ and giving up her dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.
The film moves at a brisk pace. But the scenes that showcase the aerial rescue operations towards the climax seem staged. Saxena’s interactions with her colleagues, who seem to resist gender equality, may also seem a bit forced.
Actor Angad Bedi as the beefy, sexist but inherently good-hearted brother of Saxena is serviceable. While he is inherently inflexible, his toxic masculinity isn’t offensive and that’s a problem. It makes you wonder if director Sharma was shying away from flying too close to the fire.
This is a biopic that doesn’t have many warts or moles and is fighting hard to be a rosy fable.
Some of the scenes in which her male peers and teachers sideline her seem a bit far-fetched. Kapoor’s quest to secure a changing room and a female toilet is appalling in theory, but the movie handles the issue with a deliberate flair and lightness. Actor Viineet Kumar as an experienced fighter pilot does his job of being a sexist cad neatly.
The biopic, which claims to have been liberally dramatised, is an engaging one-time watch. Just like its leading lady, it’s easy on the eyes and never yanks you to an uncomfortable space.
The movies soars when it tackles the father-daughter dynamic, but dips when it comes to the real deal.