Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, the biopic of Flight Lieutenant (retd) Gunjan Saxena which released recently on Netflix, has stirred up a hornet's nest following claims of inaccuracy. The film claims to be inspired by a true story of the first woman officer of Indian Air Force (IAF) who went to war but members of Indian Armed Forces have already called out the film for its inauthenticity in depiction, including the portrayal of rampant sexism amongst its officers.
Saxena's course mate Flight Lieutenant (retd) Sreevidya Rajan has also called the film incorrect and biased.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl Revolves Around...
The film shows Gunjan Saxena as the first woman officer of the IAF to have flown a helicopter and participate in casualty evacuation operations during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999. It also depicts Saxena as the first woman to have been posted at the Udhampur Air Force Base, where she faces sexism and unfair treatment from fellow pilots of her unit and their commanding officer. Saxena is shown to have not been provided with a ladies changing room or washroom. The film further shows how she misses out on multiple sorties because of discrimination from the male officers at the Air Force base. Gunjan has to arm wrestle her fellow officers to prove her 'strength'. And she rescues her commanding officer from certain death when his helicopter is shot down during an evacuation operation.
A fact check throws up contradictions and interesting details. By definition, a biopic is a film about the life of a real person. In practice, filmmakers and producers across the world dramatise and adapt biopics to enhance appeal for audiences.
Was Gunjan Saxena Really The First Woman Officer To Fly In Combat ?
This is the moot question because it is the key selling point for the film. And it appears the claim is being contested.
Wing Commander (Rtd) Anupama Joshi was among the first women officers of the IAF and had been consulted on this film for etiquette and protocol details. She told BOOM, "We were the first women to have joined the Indian Armed Forces in 1992, including the Army, Navy and Air Force, and were assigned ground duties. The Air Force wanted to see how women adapt to the Forces, how men also adapt with women. The first batch of women with flying duties came in 1994."
But it is also true that Sreevidya Rajan and Gunjan Saxena were the first women officers from IAF to fly in a combat zone. They flew Cheetah helicopters from Srinagar for rescue operations and communications tasks, supply drops. Saxena and Rajan are from the fourth course (batch) intake of 1994. There were six women pilots in their course. Because they were posted and trained at the Udhampur base in high altitude flying, they flew combat. Rajan claims she is the first woman officer to have flown in Kargil and IAF hasn't denied this claim. BOOM contacted IAF spokesperson Indranil Nandi to crosscheck details of records maintained by them and are yet to hear from them. We will update the story when IAF gets back with the details.
Who Is Flight Lieutenant (Retd) Sreevidya Rajan ?
Flight Lieutenant (Retd) Sreevidya Rajan was Gunjan's colleague at the same time and has publicly expressed surprise at Gunjan's portrayal as the first woman officer.
Rajan told BOOM, "Gunjan and I are course mates. Six of us trained in our course, and we got commissioned as pilot officers in 1996.We are the 4th course of women pilots and the second course of women helicopter pilots. Gunjan and I were posted to Udhampur base and we have flown in high altitude sectors in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. When Kargil broke out, we were experienced pilots, and were deployed to Srinagar. I was part of the first set and Gunjan was part of the replacement set. Naturally I was the first woman to operate in the Kargil sector. The film shows only one woman pilot being posted to Udhampur base."
A popular broadcast news story by NDTV journalist Vishnu Som features both Gunjan Saxena and Sreevidya Rajan as women combat pilots in Kargil, with a sound byte from Saxena in 1999. The film is believed to have been inspired by this story. As the story was shot at an air force base, presenting Gunjan Saxena and Sreevidya Rajan to the media appeared to be organised by the IAF.
Did Gunjan Saxena Rescue Her Commanding Officer Who Discriminated Against Her ?
The film shows Gunjan Saxena suffering the brunt of sexist behaviour from a commanding officer, played by Vineet Singh in the film, who was eventually rescued by her when his helicopter was shot down in the Kargil war zone. Joshi disputes this incident and claims that the incident never happened during the war.
Were There No Separate Washrooms & Changing Rooms For Women Officers?
The film highlights the problems faced by Saxena because of no dedicated changing rooms, including turning up late for a sortie on several occasions because she could not change into a flying suit in time.
IAF spokesperson Indranil Nandi clarified, "All efforts were made to ensure that infrastructure required to accommodate women into the workspace was made available prior to their arrival to the units. However, since new construction and alteration to existing infrastructure may have taken time, adequate alternate arrangements were made in places where new infrastructure could not be completed before the arrival of the women officers."
Further, Rajan told BOOM, "When you are deployed to an operational unit, you can't expect all facilities to be in place all the time. In the first few weeks, we used the toilet in an adjacent building (to our training unit) that had a lady medical officer. Eventually facilities were built for us. As pilots, we have to report in uniform for flight training and then change into overalls. Initially, we got a makeshift changing room in the briefing room. Later, our male colleagues created a changing room out of lockers and gave us space to store our belongings and change. Our flying was never cancelled for such petty reasons. The Air Force can't afford to cancel sorties as there are a limited number of pilots."
Wing Commander (Rtd) Anupama Joshi added, "There were officers' toilets. Bases have civilian female staff like accountants etc. We used to use those too. When you are defending your country, not having a toilet shouldn't be such an issue. In my first posting, there were literally no women colleagues but we managed."
Is The Indian Air Force Sexist ?
The undertone in most portions of the film is of blatant sexism and discrimination against women. Though it changes towards the end, the early part of the film is not flattering.
Wing Commander (Rtd) Anupama Joshi took the IAF to court to fight for permanent commissions for women. Having filed this case in 2008 at the Delhi High Court, it took over eight years for women to get permanent commissions (except in flying), as mechanisms and policy within the Defence forces had to be changed.
Joshi reiterated , "What I had fought for in court and what the film shows are two different things whatsoever. My boss had backed my prayer (to the court) stating that Anupama is an asset. Male officers backed me throughout…. In fact, 95 to 98 percent of women officers are married to Armed Forces personnel. That shows that most men are not misogynists. Unlike the film, women officers didn't face an entire squadron of scoundrels."
Rajan adds, "IAF gave us equal opportunity and training. At the station (Udhampur), some were supportive and they helped us. Twenty four years ago, we were the first women to fly in this risky area, which was male dominated. Some were not happy sharing this space with women officers. If we made an error we were corrected publicly and we were under greater scrutiny. We had to work very hard to train and get these qualifications. But as an institution, the IAF has offered us equal opportunities."
As sexism in the Forces is the main grouse of most veterans against the film, the IAF's point of view becomes relevant. Its script was submitted with the IAF and it was shown to them before release. Wing Commander Nandi explains, "We had certain observations on the way gender bias was portrayed and we had requested the producers to make minor modifications and alterations to the film, which was not done…. We felt that the movie depicted gender bias as institutional work culture in the Indian Air Force; which is a grossly incorrect way of portraying the work environment and work ethos of the organisation. The work environment is gender neutral and purely merit based."
What Does Flight Lieutenant (retd) Gunjan Saxena Say?
When approached, Saxena chose not to comment. She has expressed her side of the story in a blog on NDTV where she states that she is the first female officer to fly in a combat zone and that IAF records will clarify this. She has also denied institutional sexism within the institution and has clarified that the IAF had opened her to media interactions back in the day.
What Does The Film's Producer & Director Say ?
Producers Dharma Productions, Zee Studios and OTT platform Netflix refused to comment on the ongoing controversies around the film. This criticism has come in with the film, whereas Saxena has been called the Kargil Girl across articles and news media for over two decades.
Updated On: 2020-08-24T11:57:32+05:30