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Girl who broke glass ceiling in IAF

By Dr. Nisha Sahai Achuthan

While most other reviews would have focused on the actor-performance, technical and gender aspects of this film, I zoom in straight to the story-line, viewing it from a gendered angle. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is in the continuum of recent Bollywood biopics on women, who with their physical prowess have broken prevailing stereotypes of women being physically inferior to men, and as such incapable of making their mark in fields requiring physical stamina. Two such films that come to mind are on the celebrated Boxer, Mary Kom (2014), finally winning the Women’s World Boxing Championships in 2008, with full home-support of her footballer husband looking after their twins, and Dangal (2016) where  a wrestler from patriarchy-ridden rural Haryana trains his two daughters  to become India‘s first world-class female wrestlers.

The film on Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena is in many ways in this very continuum and even more; it is about chasing dreams, pursuing passions in male-dominant fields, but made possible through the family support of one central male figure.  This is portrayed by her ability to go through the rigorous boot-camp in the Indian Air Force, and the finale of the film showing her aerial missions in the midst of heavy odds, earning her the distinction of being India’s first female Air Force Officer to fly in a combat zone in the 1999 Kargil War. That war coincidentally was covered in the media by another brave woman, Barkha Dutt, under the cover of bullet-hit bunkers, inspired in turn by her mother Prabha, who had covered the 1965 war with Pakistan.

Gunjan was enabled in realizing her childhood dream of simply wanting to fly, through the gentle but consistent support of her Colonel father, far ahead of his times, and with a different mindset from that of his colleagues in the Air Force, who are shown as giving Gunjan a very rough time. The “over-protective attitude” of Gunjan’s brother in the army towards her even in his younger days, however, is portrayed as being very different from that of their father, and it is only in the final scene after the fait accompli of his sister’s feats in the war that he comes to  salute her with deference. Her mother’s “marriage-oriented” plans for Gunjan, or  pursuing higher education given her excellence in academics as against a career in the Air Force, has been realistically portrayed. So, it is her father who remained Gunjan’s main anchor—a bond beautifully depicted, oftentimes through unspoken words and subtle body language.

The “misogyny” in the then work-culture of the IAF referred to by some reviewers is to my mind an incorrect description of it; it was more about male chauvinism, institutionalized patriarchy and territoriality then prevalent both in the civilian and uniformed defense sector in India, witnessed by me first hand as a civil servant there in the 1990s. The reported objections of the IAF to the Censor Board about the “undue negative portrayal” of the IAF personnel, and that IAF was the first branch of Indian armed forces to allow women, also suggesting that they have “a gender-neutral workforce” (now in 2020), hence are misplaced; today is different from what was, way back in the 90s, when Gunjan had to battle all of this.

However, another incident in the film about the IAF not having a women’s toilet is understandable; what is jarring was the retort of her hostile Commanding Officer that “this place isn’t made for women” contrasted with the supportive role of her Flight Commander. This is reminiscent of the 2016 biopic “Hidden Figures”, where in the early 1950s NASA did not have a separate bathroom for its black women staff. But their director is then shown as proactively abolishing  “bathroom segregation” and knocking down the “Colored Bathroom” sign himself, and thereafter initiating a more inclusive work-environment. What is noteworthy is how the three black women mathematicians in NASA and also Gunjan handled this yet another obstacle, without making an issue of it, and forging ahead steadily in achieving their goal. That Gunjan was able not only to deftly navigate rough terrains, finally breaking the glass ceiling, is a tribute to her grit and perseverance. Gunjan is also the story of a catalyst and a trailblazer, paving the way for many other women to join the armed forces through institutional change, as rightly claimed by the IAF.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl starring Janhvi Kapoor was released on Netflix last month.  

Dr. Achuthan is a retired member of the IAS and currently a New York based Consultant on Security issues, Sustainable Development and the Performing Arts. She is also a film buff.

Poster of the film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl and real life Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena (Photos courtesy Cinema Express)
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