For Janhvi Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi and Sharan Sharma, why the making of Gunjan Saxena felt personal
In a conversation with Firstpost on Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, director Sharan Sharma, Janhvi Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi open up about trials of telling a true story, the debate surrounding the trailer, and more
Janhvi Kapoor's sophomore feature film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, directed by debutant Sharan Sharma, has been faced with the uphill task of staving off online debate on nepotism. Premiering on Netflix on 12 August, the film stars Pankaj Tripathi, Vineet Kumar Singh and Angad Bedi in supporting acts, and is based on the life of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena.
Among her several firsts, Saxena was the first woman to join the Indian Air Force as a pilot at the young age of 24, and served in the '99 Kargil war. She was also the maiden female recipient of the Shaurya Vir Award, given to her for displaying courage and grit during the Kargil conflict.
In a Zoom conversation with Firstpost, Sharan Sharma, Janhvi Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi open up about the wonders of inhabiting Gunjan Saxena's world, the debate over the trailer, and why the journey felt so deeply personal.
Sharan, why did you think the story of Gunjan Saxena would be the best fit for your directorial debut?
I actually stumbled upon the story of Gunjan Saxena. I feel very lucky and blessed that even though what we show of her story ended in the year '99, nobody else had picked it up in all these years — this was a blessing for me. When I stumbled upon an article on Gunjan ma'am, I did not find too much on her. All it said was that she was a 24-year-old girl who had served in the Kargil war as a rescue pilot, and her brother was also in the army and a part of the Kargil war, and that her father was in the army as well. At the moment that I saw the article, I took it to my mother and asked her what she thinks of it, and she said it is interesting. There was something about it which appealed to me. I took it to Karan (Johar) with the intention that somebody should tell the story; I was a little skeptical about telling it myself, because as somebody raised in Mumbai, I really wasn't familiar with Gunjan ma'am's world. He asked me to research it and see where it goes. He really backed me up from an early stage.
When I went to meet Gunjan ma'am, I was not sure about what to expect. But when I did meet her, I was so pleasantly surprised and thrilled to understand her personality, her outlook towards life, her family dynamics, even her brother-sister dynamics. A few things also hit me at a very personal level. While I went there as an outsider trying to understand her world, as a human being and in terms of her thoughts, they really felt very personal to me — especially how she was a kid with this dream of wanting to fly. I was a kid who dreamt of becoming Sachin Tendulkar, but that did not happen. So, I know that feeling.
She and her brother have this very interesting dynamic, and I too have a younger sister. So their equation really struck me. I have always heard that a filmmaker should tell a story that is close to them, but I think it's also important for a filmmaker to tell a story that they want to know about, and Gunjan Saxena's world was one that I wanted to really dig deep into. I am very lucky that nobody else picked up this story in these 17-18 years, and I had the good fortune of telling it.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the process?
As a filmmaker, a film is a collection of challenges, no matter which one you're making. But to answer your question more specifically, I would say that as an assistant director, the kind of films I have worked on did not give me the opportunity to understand the technicalities of action sequences. But again, I was very lucky that I had with me two big pillars of support: one is my director of photography Manush Nandan, who is a terrific human being besides being terrific at his job, and also an outstanding aerial coordinator, Marc Wolff. If you look up his page on IMDb, it might take you two or three days to go through it entirely, because he has done so many films, like Star Wars, Mission Impossible, Black Hawk Down, etc. So he really came in with his expertise, helped me, and navigated the entire journey for us.
Janhvi, this is is your second feature film since Dhadak, which was released two years ago, with Ghost Stories in between. In these two years, how do you think your craft has changed, or perhaps improved?
No, I don't think that's something for me to say. I think you should ask that question to people who've seen the film. I don't know, I don't think I can say anything for myself. Hopefully, I've gotten more confident, and I've gotten more comfortable in front of the camera, and I hope there's been improvement (laughs).
Is there any training that you've undertaken in these two years, or any tricks of the trade that you may have picked up that you can talk about?
I think there is a lot that I have tried to pick up. I know it's been a two years' gap, but during this time I have shot for two full feature films, one short film and one half of Dostana, which is my third feature film. So, I've been working non-stop for these two years. The best way to learn when it comes to acting is on the job, because no matter how much you do or prepare (for a part), the kind of experience you get when you are actually in front of the camera...and then you watch, and you do, you review and then you learn, and you do it again — I think that's the best kind of learning. Of course, when you're in the company of great actors like Pankaj Tripathi, you learn a lot from them.
And I've just been trying to learn from my surroundings. I've had the opportunity to travel to many interesting places within my country that I'd never heard of, let alone even seen. So one thing that I think I have tried to actively do is get to know my people more. Because at the end of the day, as actors we are playing people of our country, so you need to know where they come from, where they are, where they want to go, their likes, their ambitions, their dislikes, their livelihoods. I've led a relatively protected life, so I think that it's been a dream...no, not a dream of mine, but an aspiration of mine to always have the freedom to explore that, and I think through my film shoots I've been able to do that a lot more in these past two years.
Pankaj, the father-daughter relationship on-screen between you and Janhvi has a very simple, old-world charm to it, and your characters are, of course, based on real people. What kind of preparation or homework do you do for a role based on a real person?
I did not do any homework beyond the normal amount for this role. Whatever written material and research was there, along with Anup Saxena's voice notes that Sharan had brought with him to me, were enough for me. I realised that I, coincidentally, belong to the same background as him, — whether it's economically or socially — I come from that part of the country itself. So I think I understand his concerns, his dreams and his needs. But yes, since he was a real person and not a work of fiction, the voice notes and the various elements incorporated into the script made it easy for me to play the role. It did not feel all that tough for me.
When you work on a film that is biographical in nature, what are the toughest elements to navigate?
Janhvi Kapoor: I don't know if there are any challenges, but there's a lot of clarity, because you have a real-life example in front of you. However, there is a sense of duty and responsibility, especially because of the world that Gunjan Saxena comes from, and because of everything she has done. So besides a sense of duty, there is also a moral and ethical responsibility that I think all of us felt very greatly.
Sharan Sharma: I think from my experience of this film, the biggest challenge is to earn the trust of the person on whom the film is being made. And luckily for us, I think we crossed that bridge very early in the process. When Gunjan ma'am came on-board, there was great syncing from a very early stage. And after that, I did not see it as a challenge; I only saw it as something positive, because there is so much in front of you to play with. There were times when certain things came into the film that had they not happened in real life, I don't think me and my writers would even have thought of them.
Also, I think the way I would put it is a true story gives you so much to play with that it can only be positive. I don't see any challenges coming in the way; I believe it only enhances creativity, and enhances the journey of being able to tell a story.
Pankaj Tripathi: In real stories, especially in ones like Gunjan Saxena, I feel a certain amount of delicacy, sincerity and compassion need to be present, and Sharan brings all of that to the table. You see, a lot of times we end up approaching such stories in a very 'filmy' manner, and a film like this demanded not being filmy. It is not one of those stories. Sharan has that kind of sincerity and sensitivity in abundance, which is why he could make this film.
Sharan, when you write a film based on true events, how do you decide how much of it will be factual, and how much of it is going to be fictionalised or dramatised for celluloid?
That is one of the biggest challenges in the writing phase, because sometimes you find so much that's good about the real story. One of the writers, Nikhil (Mehrotra), had actually told me that the biggest difficulty in a film of this nature is deciding what should not go into it, and he is somebody who has worked on a film like Dangal before this. He has gone through that journey. So that is very critical in a film based on a true story, where there are so many amazing incidents, and you need to decide what should not go in. We had a very important chat with Karan Johar in the beginning, where he said that if people like a film, it should not be because of the fact that it is a true story. Even if people don't know it's a true story, the film and the drama themselves should hold, and the narrative itself should work. So, I believe while you can take from real life, the film itself should work as a film, and not just because it is a true story. That is a discipline that we tried to take into our writing phase.
When we met Gunjan ma'am initially, we were very clear that the idea was not to make a documentary, but to make a Hindi feature film. She really understood the vision and the intention of the film and was completely on board. She was guiding us, and was our additional writer and creative supervisor through the film, and we were very lucky to have her support.
Janhvi, there are scenes in the film where your character of Gunjan Saxena is being humiliated and bullied by her male colleagues that make the viewer really uncomfortable. How do you approach such emotionally charged scenes? Do you depend on your instinctive reactions to what is being said and done to you in front of the camera, or do you prefer rehearsing it?
For emotional scenes, I think I have realised through the process of shooting for this particular film that I am better when I don't rehearse for such scenes. I mean, I don't want to say better or worse — I think I am more responsive and reactive when I don't rehearse. I enjoy a more organic approach — to be there and react organically; to feel everything for the first time and to hear everything for the first time. I think that's also because so much time was spent getting to know Gunjan ma'am, and the character, what she stood for and what she is, that it wasn't as if we had to sit and plan how an emotional reaction would be, or how she would feel about a given scenario. All of those discussions had happened much before, and if there was any tweaking, I knew Sharan was there to do that. But I think for emotional scenes, it felt better to be in the moment, as opposed to prepping for them.
A role such as this must have been physically quite demanding as well. Was preparing for that difficult? And did you actually get to fly an aircraft?
Yeah, I did. For shooting the aerial sequences, we had an amazing aerial coordinator, Marc Wolff, and we were using an Italian chopper that we painted with the colours of the Indian Air Force. So my co-pilot was an Italian man named Francesco. I spent a lot of time with him and Marc inside the chopper while flying. And I spent so many hours in the chopper that Francesco, for one of the easier sequences, said, 'You've spent so much time, you know how this works and you know everything else, so take controls for a bit.' And I did do that; it was fun!
Sharan, your debut film is being released on a platform as huge as Netflix, even though it could not have a theatrical release because of the pandemic, unfortunately. There has also been a debate about the trailer ever since it released online. How are you coping with these issues, especially the controversy on the trailer?
No, not really. The pandemic is a problem that is bigger than all of us — it is a massive global issue. And I think it is of paramount importance for everyone to be safe right now. So, for us to be able to release the film in such a difficult time, and have something to really look forward to, is a blessing. And to have people and families be able to see the film in a safe environment is important for all of us. This is not a politically correct statement, I genuinely feel this way.
We are really looking forward to getting this opportunity to partner with Netflix and release the film in 190 countries. To have that kind of reach is very exciting for us. For any filmmaker, the goal is to enjoy the journey — which we have done, and to share the film with the world, which we are going to do now. We are ticking off both boxes and are quite happy about that.
When it comes to the debate around the trailer, I am nobody to have a judgement on somebody else's opinion. That is the whole fun of filmmaking, right? Everyone is an expert and everyone is allowed to have an opinion. So it is what it is. It's my choice whether I want to get bogged down by it or not; I am okay. As a first-time filmmaker, there is too much hope and positivity in me for anything to bog me down. So I am looking forward to see how it pans out on 12 August.
Finally, what are your personal takeaways from the story of Gunjan Saxena?
Pankaj Tripathi: My outlook towards my daughter and other women has changed a little after this film. Not to mention that my outlook had changed and progressed quite a bit in the past; not like it had not. But I want it to change even further, so that I can become a better man. Perhaps I have already become a better man.
Janhvi Kapoor: For me, when I started shooting for this film, I was coming from a place where I was really unsure — for many reasons — about whether I deserve to be here. I was quite bogged down and affected by a lot of the chatter. But I think through the course of making this film, I regained a lot of my self-confidence and self-belief. I also regained my confidence and belief in the notion that ultimately you need to do what is in your hand, and you need to push yourself as much as you can. You need to keep at it and keep working on it.
When it comes to the journey of the film, in terms of filming it and finding the character, that was all smooth-sailing. There were challenges, but I think we all had so much fun doing it that it did not feel hectic. You know, every time a problem would arise, whether it was a production issue or delays, Sharan would say that "the obstacles create the path" (laughs). So we kept telling ourselves that, and kept navigating with that mindset.
Sharan Sharma: Getting the chance to tell this story has really been an honour and a privilege. And the last three years have been the most amazing three years of my life. To get to tell Gunjan Saxena's story in turn really told me that I should chase my dreams with positivity, with hope and a smile on my face; with energy, sincerity, and no shortcuts.
The film also spoke to me about the importance of family support in one's life. It made me realise how lucky I am to have a family that gave me the freedom to make my own choices. When something good has happened to me, they've been there to share my happiness. And when I failed, they were there for me.
All images courtesy Netflix
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