Gunjan Saxena: “Neither I nor Sharan Sharma (the director) intended to insult the IAF”

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Netflix India released the film ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ on its streaming platform on 12th August 2020. The film has been getting a lot of positive response from the audience as well as the industry. Starring Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi and Angad Bedi, the film is based on India’s first female combat fighter, Gunjan Saxena who actively participated in the Kargil War of 1999. The makers of the film have portrayed the journey of a girl who dreams to break the stereotype and wishes to join the Indian Air Force. The film is based on the life of Gunjan Saxena who has been through difficult times throughout her journey and has been an inspiration for many women to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, some naysayers have cropped up saying that the film is neither factually correct nor is it showing the IAF in a good light. They say that Gunjan Saxena has allowed the makers of the film to take creative liberties and portray IAF as a gender-biased group. Though Gunjan Saxena has not reacted to these unwarranted claims for quite a few days now, the former Flight Lieutenant has finally decided to open up on this issue through a popular online portal. She says;

There are times when the strong winds of rumour and utter lies cover your identity in the dust of doubt. Unfortunately, I have been in the eye of this storm in the last few days. Be it on social media or print media, some people have tried to distort the basic founding values of my existence and identity. I think it is time to clear this dust.

First and foremost, who is the real me? Let me inform readers with utmost conviction and honesty that even though cinematic liberties were exercised in my biopic by the filmmakers, what they did not miss or exaggerate was me, the real Gunjan Saxena. I admit without hesitation that I have even more of an iron will and resoluteness than was portrayed in the movie. In my short career of eight years in the Air Force, the most precious commodity I earned was the admiration and respect of my seniors, juniors and peers. It was absolutely disheartening to see a small group of people trying to dent this hard-earned reputation with nonsensical rants. I was lucky and blessed to have so many firsts to my name in my years with the IAF.

To list a few — first in the order of merit during my basic training and also in helicopter training, the first woman to fly in a combat zone (mentioned in the Limca Book of Records), the first ‘BG’ (a coveted flying category) among women helicopter pilots and the first woman officer to undergo the jungle and snow survival course. There are other small achievements, but those are not of much significance to my story right now.

The reason why a quiet, reserved person like me is “blowing my own trumpet” is to throw an open challenge to anybody who refutes these facts. All these “firsts” are documented in the records of the IAF.

Those were my credentials, my achievements. That is my hard-earned trophy and I will never let anybody with vested interests point a finger at it. One article by a so-called expert on my affairs has even claimed that I was not the first woman pilot in the Kargil war. Now, for all of you reading this absurd propaganda and ranting over the “peddling of lies”, there is a humble submission. The author, claiming to protect the image of the IAF for whatever vested interests or hidden agenda, is questioning the very authenticity of the Air Force’s stand in 1999 after the Kargil war.

I am a slightly reserved person and do not enjoy the limelight. But it was the IAF that opened the doors to the media on my achievements. I was not comfortable in the media glare then and I am not now, and those who know me will vouch for it. How can anybody deny the obvious fact of me being a pioneering woman officer during the Kargil war?

Neither I nor the filmmakers ever claimed I was a “Shaurya Chakra” awardee. After Kargil, I received the “Shaurya Veer” award from a civilian organisation in Uttar Pradesh. A certain section of the internet news possibly turned “Veer” into “Chakra”. This has been clarified many times during my media interactions for the movie’s promotions. Is it fair to blame me for this?

Another issue that has been trending since the movie’s release is the topic of gender bias. The moment the movie started streaming on Netflix, so many “Knights” in shining armour outraged over what they called a straight-out attack on the IAF’s reputation. Let me assure this clan, the IAF is too big and too respectable a force to even be scratched by the controversy. The IAF as an organization is not into institutional discrimination, be it on gender or anything. I can speak for myself. When I joined there was no discrimination at the organizational level. But yes, individually, no two people are the same and some individuals adapt to change better than others. Since the bias is not at an organizational level, the experiences of different woman officers would be different. To deny it completely speaks of a feudal mindset and undermines the grit of women Officers. I also combated the difficulties of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of a few individuals for being a woman. But since it was never at the organisational level, I got equal opportunities all the time. Never in my initial years of service did I ever complain of infrastructure issues, be it the lack of a separate toilet or women’s changing rooms. In fact, when I did the survival course for almost a month, I stayed with male officers in one tent and on many occasions, freshened up early in the morning in the open jungles. I did not ask for any concessions; I wanted to do the survival course in the same way as my male colleagues. The point I want to make is that I have never highlighted these petty issues in any anti-IAF rant and I will never do so. The movie has not shown my character complaining about the non-availability of toilets. It is important, yes, but too mundane an issue to crib about.

I did hear one senior journalist pointing out threadbare factual inaccuracies in the movie. Yes, I do agree and I know the sequence of events in the Kargil war. I have never denied it or claimed otherwise. Why would anyone? It is creative license, which is certainly not with me but with the makers of the movie. But the intention of the movie was to inspire people to chase their dreams with hope and positivity, the way I chased mine. The entire storyline was based on the theme of my journey, how my dreams became reality. As I understand, the film was never intended to be a documentary on the Kargil war. The idea was to showcase my life, my journey, my dreams and my little achievements. Neither I nor Sharan Sharma (the director) intended to insult the IAF. I can say this with conviction. In fact, where I was regularly consulted on the phone or in person (I was present during four or five shoots in Lucknow) was on the authenticity of the uniforms, my mannerisms, the layout of offices and technical terms or jargon linked to flying.

In the end, I would like to drive home another point. This celebrity status is a novel virus in my life that does not infect my core values or ethos at all. This is mainly because there is a conviction in my heart and mind. Right from the day I was born, I have lived every single day of my life with people in military uniform. Both my brother and I chose careers in the Armed Forces. Even after hanging up my uniform, I continued to live on the Air Force premises as an officer’s wife. I do not need sermons from anybody for my knowledge or the lack of it as far as the Armed Forces are concerned. Whatever little I have attained, both on the personal and professional front, is from the IAF.

The rest, I leave to your good judgement and fine wisdom.

Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena (retd), a woman officer, flew operational sorties in the 1999 Kargil war, including casualty evacuation, spotting enemy targets and assisting Army artillery gunners gauge the impact of their strikes.

Apart from this debate, the film has been tremendously loved by the audience and makers of the film have been showered by a lot of love and blessings from the netizens for their outstanding tribute to Gunjan Saxena who is a true example of self-belief.

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