Wednesday 12 August 2020

"Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl" (Guardian 12/08/20)

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl ***
Dir: Sharan Sharma. With: Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Angad Bedi, Vineet Kumar Singh. 112 mins. Cert: 15

Bollywood’s pivot to streaming continues with a biopic that presents as an obstacle course of sorts. How to dramatise the trajectory of Flight Lieutenant Saxena, first woman to helicopter into combat for the Indian Air Force, without generating some inanely gender-flipped Top Gun rerun, and/or slipping into meatheaded militarism? Writer-director Sharan Sharma’s response is to follow the tried-and-tested contours of the biographical star vehicle – he avoids the structural risks of last month’s Shakuntala Devi – while relying on heart and good humour to lift his film over those aforementioned pitfalls. Little has been certain about 2020, but distaff applications for even administrative Air Force positions are surely set to go through the roof.

Appropriately, the narrative itself resembles a series of tests, locating its Gunjan (emergent superstar Janhvi Kapoor) within various institutions, then looking on in awe as she elevates herself. Amid the initial snapshot of family life – brother insisting sis would do better as a stewardess, mum worrying when her girl will find time to marry – the ever-sly Pankaj Tripathi stands out as Saxena’s shruggingly supportive dad. Once Gunjan passes into the IAF’s far less forgiving embrace, however, there’s an element of Private Benjamin in play. We’re cheering a tiny, doe-eyed creature being drilled out of apologising for herself on a base where there isn’t a ladies’ toilet – “because this place isn’t made for women”, as gruff CO Vineet Kumar Singh insists.

Sharma is smart enough to factor any residual viewer reservations around Kapoor’s cover-girl softness back into that CO’s antagonism. Yet his star puts in visibly hard yards – not least in the inevitable, irresistible training montages, set to Amit Trivedi’s fine songs – and grows more authoritative; dynamic stunt choppering helps, but Kapoor is also raggedly fierce in the scene where Gunjan finally breaks ranks to defend herself. Some sense of biopic predestination remains, perhaps as this brisk feelgood endeavour succeeds in getting its subject where she was going speedier than most. In doing so, Sharma adds his own achievement to those of his heroine: he’s overseen that rare Netflix Original not to feel at least a half-hour too long. 

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is now streaming via Netflix.

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