Pop Culture

Gunjan Saxena Pilots A Feminist Tale (Without A Single Love Song!)

. 5 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Gunjan Saxena Pilots A Feminist Tale (Without A Single Love Song!)

When admonishing Gunjan, one of her superiors lashes out, “Humari zimmedari hai is desh ki raksha karna, tumhe barabari ka mauka dena nahi.” (Our responsibility is to protect the country, not give you an opportunity for equality). Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, amidst all the mixed reactions and social media debates, is a film that does just that – give an equal opportunity to a film revolving solely around a woman, and her trials and triumphs. 

The Film Manages To Centre Around A Woman, Without Justifying Her Worth Through Romance 

One of the biggest wins of the biopic for me was the complete lack of a romantic relationship. It never allows the audience to feel the need for a “love interest”. It acknowledges that a female protagonist does not need to be associated with romance or juxtaposed with a “hero” to helm a film and be interesting.

The biopic is based on the real-life story of Gunjan Saxena, who belonged to the first batch of women recruited to the Indian Air Force in 1994 and who went on to be a combat aviator in the 1999 Kargil conflict. While everyone remembers her as “the Kargil girl”, the biopic humanises her by taking us through the innumerable times she had to prove herself in the face of relentless antagonism in a male-dominated field on the daily, before proving herself on the field and going down in history.

Putting The Onus Of Battling Sexism On Factors Outside The Woman

We’ve had several films recently, some undeniably good and others admittedly bad, that in an attempt to be feminist allow the woman the space to rage against injustices, exact revenge, spit out passionate feminist monologues, and violently destroy the fabric of patriarchy that constrains her. These films, given the slow progress we’ve made with equal and fair gender representation on screen, are undoubtedly necessary.

Gunjan Saxena, however, while unyielding in its depiction of the sexism that she faces at work, rarely puts the responsibility of changing mindsets and fighting against this sexism on the woman alone. 

As competent a pilot as Gunjan is, a feminist awakening of the male officers will not happen simply after she makes one impassioned speech that calls them out.

Change is made possible each time her wonderfully feminist father pushes her to chase her dreams. Right from a young age, when Gunjan dreams of becoming a pilot, and is teased by her brother that – girls don’t become pilots, just air-hostesses who serve others – her father chastises and corrects him. “Plane ladka udaye ya ladki, dono ko pilot hi bolte hai. Jo banna hai tumhe, ban na,” he tells her.

gunjan with father

What everyone else views as simple fatherly indulgence, is in actuality a truly feminist man who refuses to propagate sexist values to his daughter just to keep her “safe” from the world. 

Later, after facing numerous injustices and setbacks at the Air Force, Gunjan tells her father that maybe she should consider marriage. This perception of marriage as the only other alternative to a career for a woman is one that social conditioning has ensured most women still hold. Her father angrily tells her – “Tu wahi karne jaa rahi hai jo duniya har ek ladki se ummeed karti hai, ki apne sapno ko chod chaad ke settle ho jaaye”. He tells her that despite his wishes, her mother had not followed her dreams, and had done exactly what her family had taught her a woman must do. “Isliye is ghar mein tujhe koi aisi seekh na di jo tujhe aage badhne se rok sake.

Gunjan’s successes are a product of her strength, undeterred ambition and perseverance, that in turn are a product of this upbringing that instilled empowerment instead of fear and internalised sexism.  

The onus of change cannot just be on the women, but on the external factors that subdue, dismiss, and restrain them – on the men, the societal institutions, and the workplaces.

The Discriminations Gunjan Faces Are A Universal Truth For Working Women Everywhere

The IAF has responded to the biopic by writing a complaint to the Censor Board for its “undue negative portrayal” in it. They have insisted that the institution promotes a female-friendly work culture.

As positive as the work culture may be today, one cannot dismiss Saxena’s experiences in having to prove her capabilities as part of the first batch of women. Especially when the instances of discrimination she faced are not limited to just the IAF, but are universally experienced by women at workplaces everywhere.

The men in the institution refer to her as “Ms Badlav”, not because she pushes for change but just for being a woman in the Air Force. From ostracization to a lack of sensitisation towards her basic needs as a woman, she faces it all. 

gunjan saxena iaf
Image courtesy: buddymantra.com

When training, she needs to be paired with a male cadet to fly the helicopter, but they all ask for their training days with her to be cancelled because “If there’s an emergency and madam starts crying, then how do I handle her when also handling the helicopter”, and “Ladkiya gaadi nahi chala sakti, plane kaha se chalaengi?” The thought of saluting her or giving her respect disgusts the male cadets so much that they avoid her like the plague.

Her gender, emotions, and lack of brute strength are dubbed weaknesses, despite her outstanding competence as a pilot, and used as justifications for stereotyped and discriminatory treatment against her – something most working women will have experienced at workplaces.

Despite being created by an all-male team, Gunjan Saxena manages to explore the life of the woman with a sympathetic and relentlessly feminist lens.

We definitely need more women telling women’s stories, but the biopic is proof that it is also possible for people outside marginalised communities to present stories of people from within the community in a nuanced, authentic, and empowered manner.

The film is now available for streaming on Netflix

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