Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is a biopic based on the life of IAF officer and former pilot Gunjan Saxena, who is the first woman Shaurya Chakra awardee. A Kargil war veteran, Gunjan Saxena was the first female IAF officer to go to war.
Gunjan Saxena's story is a lesson for every person who ever doubted someone's capability because of their gender. And her achievements are an inspiration for every girl, whose dreams are bigger than the moulds set by a patriarchal society.
In conversation with ScoopWhoop, Gunjan Saxena talks about her love for flying, the challenges she experienced as one of the first female combat pilots, and how true is the film to her real life.
For Gunjan, becoming a pilot was a very personal, almost innate desire. Or as she recalls, with an unmistakable joy in her voice, it was a 'selfish' wish, to fly and see the world - not from a window seat, but directly from the cockpit.
I just wanted to be in the sky, be airborne. At a very young age, it fascinated me. I used to day-dream and just think about it. I just wanted to fly. So, that was a very individual aim that I had - to be a pilot. For me, it was just the sheer joy of that feeling, when you're out there in the open, blue skies. It was that view in front of my eyes which just drove me towards it. That was where it all started, the idea, or the dream of being a pilot.
It was a personal dream, but it affected not just her family, but rather, an entire generation who grew up watching a female air force officer conduct recce missions, rescue operations, and serve her nation as an Indian Air Force Pilot.
But, she confesses, IAF was not her first choice. Because, when she first thought of flying, IAF did not accept female pilots.
Initially, this option of joining the Air Force in the flying branch wasn't open for women pilots. So it was nowhere in my horizon that I would end up joining the Indian Air Force as a pilot. I wanted to just fly, so commercial flying was the only option that was available to me.
For Gunjan though, serving in the defence forces came naturally to her, because she came from an army background. Her father retired from the Indian Army as a Lt. Col., and her brother also joined the army.
It was destined. As I was completing my graduation, that was the time this opportunity of getting into the flying branch of the Air Force was opened (for women). I just applied for it. Why the Air Force? I would say since my father was in the army, we've been born and brought in the environment. So it was a very familiar zone for me, and obviously my comfort zone. It was something I could take up very naturally. It was a very comfortable choice to make.
While choosing to be part of IAF came to her naturally, it was the training at the academy that transformed her individual dream into duty for the nation. And, throughout her journey, from falling in love with flying to joining the IAF, her family was her pillar of support.
As Gunjan hilariously admits, they had no choice but to support her, because she had convinced them that she and flying were a match made in heaven. But the support came with valid concerns.
I had made them very okay with my decision, that flying would be my profession. Since it started very early in my childhood, they were kind of settled with this idea at least. Over the years, they realized that I used to just talk about this option. They had accepted it. They were never discouraging about it, but yes, they always wanted me to have a plan B. Which, unfortunately, I never had. Flying is a profession where there are a lot of variables, as far as medicals are concerned. Nobody can really say for sure that you are going to land up there. So they always wanted me to have a plan B which I somehow never had. Luckily, I never required it.
And when it came to joining the IAF, her family stood by her side, not letting even their own apprehensions stop her from fulfilling her dreams.
I did not face any resentment as far as that (joining the IAF) was concerned. Yes, a little bit of worry in the sense--as people like to put it, though I don't agree--it was a male-dominated profession at that time. But it wasn't really something that was conveyed to me, or in any way discouraged me from joining the Air Force.
The reason her family never stopped her from chasing 'impossible' dreams, was because of her father - a man who was 'woke' before it was cool, and who literally marched to the beat of his own tune, society be damned.
He's (her father) somehow always been away from the crowd, from the general social outlook that people have. I was born in '74 and I completed my schooling in 1991. And '94 is the time we're talking about when I decided to join the Air Force. Back then, majority of the people did not really find it a profession which was a choice for women. But my father, somehow, he just didn't let that point of view enter into the house only. Forget about me, it never came into our family. That way he was always very different from society, way way ahead.
Ultimately, through her father's support and her own determination, she achieved her goal - to see the world from the cockpit, while serving the nation. In fact, her relationship with her father is one of the aspects that she says the film nails perfectly.
He was extremely encouraging, even if there were times that I doubted myself. Everybody has ups and downs in their life. So even if there were times when he thought I was doubting myself or I was planning to give up, he just told me, "No. There is no way you're thinking about this." He got this into my mentality, my thinking, and my system, that it's just your hard work that is going to get you what you want. Don't let other variables around you, in any way, clutter your focus. I think that was the very thing that saw me through some very tough times in life.
While the depiction of the father-daughter relationship comes pretty close to the truth, she admits that film altered some of the incidents to fit a five-year-journey into a two-hour film.
What I shared with Sharan was my journey of close to four years, if you exclude the training. And if you include the training, it's about five and a half years of the journey which I shared with him. He had to portray it in close to two hours on screen. And keeping the spirit and focus where he wanted it to be.
And according to her, it's unfair that undue focus is being showered on only one aspect of the film (gender bias), when in fact, Sharan's vision, and the film's story, is not just about the challenges, but also about the change that took place.
I feel a lot of people are misunderstanding the whole intention of the movie. It is not trying to show gender bias or highlighting that part. It is more about that, at that time, how the society was and how things change. How this big change was taken with a bit of apprehension, which was very natural and that is why I don't like to blow it out of proportion because it was a very natural reaction that people had to women officers at that time. This movie, what it's trying to show, this apprehension, though it was there, in no way hampered us from doing our duty. Or in no way hampered the organization from giving us the opportunities.
She also shared that while it's true that there were 'apprehensions' about accepting women in the flying branch, those concerns were valid considering that she was part of the first batch of female officers selected for IAF's flying branch.
We (female officers) had to first prove our potential. Because flying is a profession which is absolutely unforgiving. You can't really expect to stand up there and say, I want equal opportunities, without first proving your potential. I am not the only one who had to do it. Even male officers had to do it. So yes, a little bit of apprehension, little bit of teething troubles, yes they were there, no one can deny it. But at the same time, it is the same organization that gave me these opportunities to prove my potential. The very fact that I went to Kargil, it wasn't my decision. I couldn't get up on my own and say that I want to be a part of this operation. The people who took this decision were men in uniform. So, we can't deny that. It is a delicate thing that people need to understand.
In fact, she believes that the message that the film sends across is not limited to female officers or female aspirants, but rather the youth in general.
The intention of this movie is more to show that positive, progressive change. And, at the same time, bring home this message to a lot of people, I won't say only women or girls, but a lot of young people out there - that when you do face these challenges or such obstacles come in your path, what you need to do is keep your focus. Without making a big noise about it, first, be good at your work, prove your potential. And then see, whether the opportunities are coming your way or not. Once that is done, it also shows in the end, how it changed the whole mindset and the acceptance came. That is what the journey is shown in this movie that we've done.
While she is confident about the message the film sends across now, she also admits that when she was first offered, she thought it was actually a prank.
Sharan, the director, he got my number and contacted me. I actually thought that it's somebody who is playing a prank on me, maybe an old friend who is pulling my leg. So, I just acted very cool, "okay okay, you want to do a movie. That's fine." He just said, "Ma'am you think about it, and I will call you a couple of days later." And I said, "Yeah, yeah. Okay, fine." So I was very cool about it because I was sure it's a prank. And I just felt whoever it is would call up again and say, "See, I was pulling your leg." But that didn't happen. After 3-4 days, Sharan called back and that's when it hit me, that it's serious. Someone really wants to do this movie from Dharma productions.
However, ultimately, it was Sharan's honesty that convinced Gunjan to come on-board the film.
And she was equally confident of the casting choice because she believed Janhvi understood the kind of person that Gunjan is.
She's (Janhvi) done a pretty good job. A lot of times when I saw the movie I felt, she's really understood my character and my personality. I'm not the kind of person who reacts very loudly, where an average person would. I like to just keep calm, keep my head down, and just continue working. She's really caught on to that trait very well. At the same time, without really saying much, she's been able to convey with her expressions on screen. And I like how she did it and how she portrayed it on screen.
What is also true though, is that the instances shared in the film are inspired by the challenges she faced when she first joined the IAF. But Gunjan reiterates that it's not about the challenges, but rather the way her commanding officers took charge of the situation, trusting her for the Kargil mission, after only three years into the service.
A trailblazer, her advice to the youth, and especially to women, is clear - the way to succeeding in any field, male-dominated or not, is to follow your passion and work hard for yourself, not to prove a point.
The advice that I like to give is that number 1, don't go into a profession just to prove something to somebody else. I never entered this profession because I wanted to prove anything to anybody else. It was my passion, it was my dream, and something I really wanted to. I think that should be the priority for everybody, irrespective of the profession you choose. Whether there are men or women in it really shouldn't be your criteria for choosing a profession. Once made your choice, keep your focus and don't let anything, anything at all, shift your focus. And there are no shortcuts. There are no shortcuts to success. If you do your job very well and make yourself indispensable, it is very difficult for the people above you, irrespective of their gender, to overlook you. That is where the focus should be, for the younger generation.
It's solid advice and one that surely helped her break open the cage of patriarchy and fly high.
Though she retired after serving as a pilot for seven years ( permanent commission for women was not present at the time of her service), flying remains an integral part of her, and something she sorely misses, to date.
Nobody can ever say that they don't miss flying, anybody who's been airborne. Once you've been there, in the cockpit, it's a feeling that's very difficult to describe in words. And it is a feeling that just stays with you for life. I can never say that I don't miss flying. I'm very fortunate that my husband is still actively flying in the Air Force. He's also a helicopter pilot, so I do get the opportunities to discuss flying with him, and his experiences. Whenever, late in the night, if I discuss something very challenging or interesting with him, then I often dream about the same situation, and I am in the cockpit. I say it very often, it (flying) just gets in you, it gets in your system.
Gunjan Saxena did not set out to become a champion of women's rights. But her courage in the face of challenges, her exemplary achievements, and her single-minded focus turned her into a modern-day wonder woman, who had the whole nation looking up to her. No wonder her achievements continue to fuel the fire of girls' dreams everywhere.