Ms Representation: Equal isn’t the same as identical
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Nefelibata. It’s a new word I stumbled upon recently. The Urban Dictionary explains it to mean a ‘cloud walker’ i.e. ‘one who lives in the clouds of their imagination’. It would be a good word to define the young Gunjan Saxena, who aspires to be one, quite literally. After catching a glimpse of the vast blue expanse with tufts of white on a commercial flight, young Gunju decides that the skies are her place. Wearing a pair of goggles to ‘protect her eyesight’, Gunjan confidently proclaims that she will become a pilot. However, her excited face crumbles when her brother mocks her: ‘Girls can’t be pilots.‘ Enter Gunjan’s father Anup Saxena (an effective Pankaj Tripathi), who admonishes his son: “Which buffoon taught you that?”.
This internalised sexism forms the most important narrative in this film. Gunjan’s universe is filled with men who seem to be representatives of the various stops on the sexism spectrum. If Anup embodies the progressive end, Gunjan’s overprotective, ‘the world is cruel’ brother falls in the middle, with Gunjan’s senior filling up the regressive end. Gunjan’s workplace also reflects this conditioning. The film shows the IAF seeking female candidates, but its base office is not equipped with a ladies' restroom. There are no changing rooms for women either, with Gunjan expected to change on the tarmac by a senior officer. Gunjan’s sorties get cancelled because men refuse to fly with her for the flimsiest reasons: “Women can’t drive cars, how will they manage a chopper?” “What if she were to suddenly cry?” “I haven’t spoken to a woman on land, how will I do it in mid-air?” Her basic demands are seen as ‘excuses’, as the ‘boys club’ continue to shun her for ridiculous reasons. The men refuse to salute her and to get an opportunity that men get so easily, Gunjan has to run from pillar to post, quite literally.
However, the film has raised a controversy with respect to the authenticity of the events in the film. The IAF has written a letter to the Censor board, ‘objecting its undue negative portrayal’ in the film. Several female officers have spoken out saying that the makers have ‘twisted facts’. In a strongly worded Outlook article, Wing Commander Namrita Chandi (Retd) has defended her male colleagues, accusing the film of ‘peddling lies’. In her article, she admits to not having exclusive toilets or changing rooms for women, but she maintains that most colleagues were professional. Even Gunjan herself has admitted in an interview that sexism was not as extreme as depicted in the film.
Biopics are dramatised reality, and not documentaries. They are products of the choices made by the filmmaker. So we do have to account for creative liberties. But the good biopics, usually, exist close to the truth. With Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, I found a few choices disturbing. The biggest of these concerns is the complete absence of Sreevidhya Rajan, who was also posted at the Udhampur base along with Gunjan in 1996. In a Facebook post, Sreevidhya reveals that she too flew in Kargil, allegedly before Gunjan. Why completely erase a fellow achiever, when it could have easily added to narrative value? To tell one woman’s story well, why is there the need to erase another woman?
The film also doesn't show us who Gunjan is, beyond her fascination for flying. In several instances, the film skates over her discomfort and inconvenience, and chooses to focus more on the emotions of the men around her. When Gunjan walks into a room crowded with men, the focus is on their curious glances. Maybe the role needed an actor more dynamic than Jhanvi Kapoor to register these emotional nuances more effectively. The film is well-intentioned, of course, but as it exists, the film seems to reduce Gunjan to a prop to tell us more about the men around her. It reduces a possibly dynamic story to a template that has almost become cliche in women-centric cinema.
But despite such shortcomings, Gunjan Saxena drives an important message home. In the solitary emotional outburst Gunjan has in the film, she tells her senior officer that the major problem is that the men fear ‘if this madam becomes a sir, they will have to salute her.’ Gunjan’s story is an example that women need not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity to prove their ability; that a ‘madam’ doesn’t have to be a ‘sir’ to demand respect. Women are equal to men, not identical. And ‘different’ doesn’t translate to ‘inferior’. That’s a takeaway worth remembering.