Bollywood continues its turn towards streaming with a biopic that presents itself as a kind of obstacle course: how to dramatize the career of Flight Lieutenant Saxena, the first woman to go into combat for the Indian Air Force in a helicopter, without creating an absurd rerun of Top Gun or falling into silly militarism? Writer-director Sharan Sharma’s answer is to follow the proven contours of the star’s biographical vehicle – avoiding the structural pitfalls of last month’s Shakuntala Devi – while relying on her heart and good humour to raise her film above those pitfalls. Not much is known about 2020, but women’s candidacies, even for administrative positions in the air force, are sure to reach new heights.
The story itself resembles a series of trials in which Gunjan (aspiring superstar Janhvi Kapoor) is placed in various institutions and then watches him rise with wonder. In the middle of the initial snapshot of family life – the brother insisting that his sister would be better off working as a stewardess, the mother worrying about when she will have time to get married – the ever astute Pankaj Tripathi stands out as Saxena’s father, shrugging his shoulders and giving her support. However, once Gunjan finds himself in the much less forgiving IAF camp, there is an element of Private Benjamin at play. We applaud a small doe eyed creature who must apologize to a base where there are no women’s toilets, “because this place is not for women,” as the gruff commander Vineet Kumar Singh points out.
Sharma is smart enough to take into account the reservations the public might have about Kapoor’s rudeness as a cover girl in the role of this officer’s antagonist. But her star obviously struggles – especially in the inevitable and irresistible training montages, supported by Amit Trivedi’s beautiful songs – and becomes more confident; the stunt dynamics help, but Kapoor is also heart-wrenchingly ferocious in the scene where Gunjan finally breaks free to defend himself. There remains a certain sense of biographical predestination, perhaps because this fast-paced wellness film manages to get its subject where it wants to go faster than most. In doing so, Sharma adds his own direction to that of his heroine: he supervised the rare Netflix original that doesn’t seem to last at least half an hour too long.