In the summer of 1999, amid heightened tensions between Indian and Pakistani troops in the Kargil region, a 25-year-old Flying Officer, posted at Udhampur, was tasked with a mission that would challenge the existing status quo in the Indian Air Force (IAF).
The job was reconnaissance, among other things.
Too young to process the newly bestowed responsibility, the said officer left for Srinagar, a familiar terrain minus the turbulent atmosphere, where she met an all-male team of pilots. It was a moment of reckoning for the officer, who would find herself caught in the crossfire, which would earn her the title ‘The Kargil Girl’.
Twenty years ago, Gunjan Saxena scripted history when she was the first woman to enter the combat zone in Kargil. “The moment I came to know that I was part of the operation, when my flight commander told me that I’d be joining my colleagues in Srinagar... that is something I will always remember,” says Saxena, on a Zoom call from Varanasi.
Rummaging through her memories of the war, she says she felt a great sense of achievement when she flew for the final time before the Indian Army regained control of Kargil — the subject of which is the upcoming biopic Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, starring Janhvi Kapoor in the titular role.
A humble start
Starting her career in 1995, Saxena underwent three levels of training at the IAF Academy before she was inducted into the force. Her first airborne experience was in a fixed-wing aircraft, in which she played the role of a bystander.
She has vivid recollections of a thrilling experience, hovering around the valleys and admiring the scenic beauty. The first time she rode a Cheetah helicopter — which she says was akin to a “sports car” — was when she was posted in Udhampur. “The Cheetah is highly manoeuvrable but highly unstable too. The view from the cockpit was so spectacular that I felt I was inside a bubble,” she says, with childlike enthusiasm.
Saxena was still a junior when she was sent to Srinagar and later, to Kargil. She was not in an emotional space to think about the remnants of war or the scars it leaves. For her, everything moved at a 2X speed, a natural instinct for those who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. “It was a huge privilege and a challenge for me. At that time, there wasn’t much going in my head. I was like a sponge, trying to absorb everything I could.”
- Gunjan Saxena served in the Indian Air Force for eight years between 1996 and 2004. She was the first woman to receive the Shaurya Chakra, for valour during the Kargil War.
- She terms Janhvi’s portrayal of her as earnest and relatable. “I’ve only seen her in Dhadak . Apart from that, my interactions with her were on the sets. But when I saw the final movie, I was so moved by her performance,” she says, adding, “So many times I felt like I was watching myself on the screen.”
As a Flying Officer, she was skilled in riding Cheetah helicopters, known for operating at high altitude conditions. She surveyed the Kargil area from the air, and reported the geographical positions of the enemy camp. “The terrain wasn’t new to me. It was under our area of operation. But yes, the situation was tense and was something I hadn’t experienced before,” she says.
One of the major operations Saxena was tasked with was casualty evacuation, during which she was almost hit by an enemy missile. The reality of the situation did not sink in at that moment. Only when asked to narrate her ordeal does she see it from an outsider’s perspective: how things could have gone either way. “But that’s why you undergo the process of training, right? They mould you into a better person,” says Saxena, describing the 20-odd days she spent in the war as something “any combat aviator would dream of”.
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Mirroring real life
When Saxena started her journey as a pilot, the thought of her becoming an inspirational figure never crossed her mind. It was, as she says, a personal dream she was pursuing. Now, she is filled with a sense of gratitude, “Even if I’m able to inspire one person through this movie, I feel honoured,” she says.
For someone who does not usually get emotional at the movies, Saxena says she became a tad so watching her life unfold on the screen, when she saw the biopic with her husband, also an IAF officer.
“It was a different experience for me, although I knew the story and what the forthcoming scene was. When I was narrating my story to Sharan Sharma (director) and Janhvi, I told them so many things but in a concise manner,” she says, adding, “But they seemed to have caught on to those emotions. They have portrayed it very well.”
Gunjan is just a one among the thousand untold stories from the war, she agrees. “There are so many more inspiring stories than mine. I am just privileged to have a movie made on me,” she says, adding, “I’m just a segment of a bigger change that is happening in the Indian Air Force. Now, we have women taking up different key roles, with a fighter stream in place.”
Years, even decades, have passed since Saxena last laid her hands on a Cheetah. Today, her adventures continue at home with motherhood. She does, however, miss flying and finds herself inside the cockpit in a recurrent dream.
“After a while, it really gets into your system.”