‘Gunjan Saxena’ Puts the Onus of Tackling Sexism on the Indian Air Force, Not On Its Protagonist
After the Netflix release of Gunjan Saxena, the eponymous biopic following the early career of India’s first woman fighter pilot who went into combat, the Indian Air Force wrote to the Censor Board complaining of its “undue negative portrayal” in the film. This development makes Gunjan Saxena a refreshing release, especially in the current military-friendly and nationalist political climate. It has the courage to show the misogyny within a male-dominated, masculinized Indian government agency.
Gunjan Saxena doesn’t concern itself with patriotism at all. It focuses on a young girl who wants to fly, and she doesn’t care where she does it — be it for a commercial private airline, or the Indian Air Force. She ultimately joins the IAF simply because they happened to be accepting women at the time. Being one of the first few women to be let into IAF, however, does come with its own set of obstacles — male peers refuse to salute her, her mentors refuse to teach her, and her entire unit ostracizes and isolates her. All the while, Gunjan (played subtly, but powerfully, by Janhvi Kapoor) keeps her head down, primarily concerned with wanting to learn to fly, until she gets a few mentors along the way (including her father, played masterfully by Pankaj Tripathi) who help her achieve that goal.
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The film flips the usual woman empowerment-narrative on its head. Where most films need their woman protagonist to be extraordinary, Gunjan Saxena foregrounds competence and learning; where most films put the onus on the woman protagonist to tear through all barriers, Gunjan Saxena turns the lens outwards, stressing it’s the institution and its male officers who need to grow up, change their ways to accommodate her, and not Gunjan herself who needs to conform to a masculinity contest culture.
The film also humanizes the struggle Gunjan goes through to simply survive in a masculinized institution. We see Gunjan retaining her sensitive self through the film, even as she gets shamed for her emotions. We see her asking for and embracing help from others, even after her peers constantly alienate her. The film shows just how persistent women need to be in male-dominated institutions, simply to be able to do their jobs while being true to their own selves. In showing this persistence in a mundane, non-glorified fashion, the film removes the onus to be extraordinary from Gunjan, and puts it squarely on the men around her.
In that vein, we see Gunjan Saxena as quite ordinary on paper — she is a woman who wanted to fly, got a job as an IAF officer, and ran helicopter missions in the 1999 Kargil War without any of the loud, patriotic fanfare. The real Gunjan Saxena even says in a Netflix promo for the film — “why [would] somebody want to do a movie on my life?” But what’s important to take away from the film is the messy, discouraging mental gymnastics women often have to do to simply survive, and do the most basic parts of their job, while all that is required of men is basic competence. In that way, both fighter pilot Gunjan Saxena, and the film, are extraordinary in their uniquely low-key wholesomeness.