Little Gunjan or Gunju (Riva Arora), as she is lovingly called by her family, is enamoured by planes and flying. When she triumphantly announces to her brother that she wants to be a pilot he mocks her and says she should instead become an air hostess, because “ladkiyan pilot thodi na bante hain (How can girls become pilots?)”. The protective father walks in and explains that irrespective of whether the aircraft is flown by a man or a woman, they are both referred to as a pilot. And so it’s settled, at least in a dinner-table conversation. Gunjan can be whoever she wants to be. But the real world comes with its own set of challenges.
The film is based on the real-life story of Gunjan Saxena, India’s first female Air Force Officer to fly in a combat zone during the 1999 Kargil War. Along with Flight Lieutenant Srividya Rajan, she was tasked with casualty evacuation during the war. The story by itself is in no want of bravado or inspiration. The challenge, therefore, was always going to be how this cinematic re-telling will pan out. Added to that was the risk of over dramatisation. Helmed by Sharan Sharma, who has written and adorned this story along with Nikhil Mehrotra, this incredible feat gets the taut and stirring treatment it deserves.
Janhvi Kapoor in the role of Gunjan Saxena, who by simply daring to work towards her dream creates history in the process, imbues her role with sincerity and honesty.
The real Gunjan Saxena was only 24 years old when she became the first female combat pilot. Janhvi looks young and starry-eyed and yet her silent resolve to forge ahead in spite of the discrimination she had to face given that the male-dominated armed forces were resistant to include women is fascinating to watch. Practical problems like no toilets or changing rooms for women to a deep-seated institutional bias makes the audience aware of the hardships Gunjan had to battle in the academy.
Although the film is about its central character Gunjan, the most poignant bits are those involving her family. It is as much centred around Pankaj Tripathi, who is simply fabulous as the warm, wise and always encouraging father protective of his daughter's dreams. Some of the most impactful lines are almost whispered by Tripathi in his trademark style, but they reverberate with their importance. Less is always more in his case and the father-daughter moments will leave many of us teary-eyed.
Assisting the deft storytelling are the supporting characters, who remain memorable. Be it Angad Bedi as the over-protective brother who justifies clipping his sister’s wings for her own safety or Vineet Kumar Singh, a Flight Commander who resists Gunjan’s inclusion in the unit. Manav Vij as the Commanding Officer, fierce and fair in his judgement, is impeccable. Not to forget the effective Manish Verma as the SSB officer or Ayesha Raza Mishra as Gunjan's huffing and worried mother.
The actual battle sequences aren't too many and the frenzied camerawork tries to capture the raw tension, but it isn’t always as effective. The real, steady moments where the film shines are in the emotional scenes, stripped of melodrama. The background score subtly and assuredly weaves its magic. An intensely emotional tale told with restraint, Gunjan Saxena seals a place in our hearts.
Our rating: 4 Quints out of 5.
(Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Gunjan Saxena was a Shaurya Chakra Awardee. The error is regretted. You can read The Quint’s fact check here: Gunjan Saxena Isn’t a Shaurya Chakra Awardee, Nor Did She Claim So)