By Judah Munoz (New York City)
The 2020 Bollywood film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is inspired by the eponymous Gunjan Saxena, the first woman in the Indian Air Force to fly in an active combat zone. The story focuses on her struggle to overcome sexism to become a military pilot.
The spotlight is really on her relationship with her father, who is clearly and continually established to be extremely supportive of her dream to become a pilot. The film made me feel as if the characters really had a familial bond that had been reinforced over years of compassion and love. My one complaint about the character portrayals is that her father’s motivations seem one-dimensional, never being fleshed out beyond being a father who wants his daughter to be happy. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I found myself feeling more sympathetic to her mother and brother, who despite being antagonistic forces in the film seemed to be a lot more real. In particular, I identified with her older brother, who throughout the film was shown to put his sister’s dreams down not out of hatred, but because he wanted to protect her from the challenges he knew she would face. As an older brother to two sisters myself, I understood his motivations, and even though I wanted the heroine to succeed, I found myself wishing that she would listen to reason and follow his advice. The mother was less personally compelling for me, but I recognized that she also had the best intentions towards her daughter, despite being a bit airheaded, in which I can see a bit of my own mother.
Something that really helped sell the authenticity of these characters was the accents and verbal mannerisms used in the English dub. I started out watching in English with subtitles, but quickly realized that what the subtitles were saying was different from the words coming out of their mouths, and the spoken version told the story in a much more compelling manner. Growing up I spent a fair amount of time with a family friend native to the Punjab area of India, and hearing them talk in a similar way to him was a good way to immerse myself in the characters. Despite the Indian speech patterns, actors, setting, and non-American cultural significance behind the story, I was surprised to find very few stereotypes I associated with Bollywood films present. My only prior exposure to Bollywood had been short clips of over dramatic acting being shared online meant to be made fun of, and I didn’t find it to resemble those clips very much at all. Really, the only indication that I was watching a non-American film, aside from the aforementioned setting and actors, was the five segments in which some unidentified narrator sang a song in Hindi about how strong and beautiful the protagonist is, the first three of which happened during montages. While these were out of place for what I as an American moviegoer expected, it was certainly nothing compared to the dance numbers I was expecting to happen.
In fact, the film uses many storytelling techniques I would usually associate with European media, such as opening in media res, really quite close to the final scene, so that throughout the film you know how the story will end. This makes complete sense for a film based on the life of a historical figure, as the main way of marketing the film would be to present it as the story of the first female pilot in the IAF to fly in a combat zone. Despite this, the nearly two-hour runtime doesn’t drag on at all, each scene having a clear purpose to the overall story and never overstaying its welcome. Sharan Sharma, the director, did an excellent job at making the plot flow smoothly and introducing elements at just the right times.
Despite this adept filmmaking, Gunjan Saxena is Sharan Sharma’s only film as director, as of writing this, although he has been credited as assistant director to two films prior to this. From the quality of film I saw, I would be interested to see more works from him in the future.