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.

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.

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