Sexist or sensational? Film stirs row

Controversy: Biopic about one of India’s first women pilots alleges discrimination and bias, but IAF and former officers say charges are trumped up and inaccurate.
The first batch of 12 women IAF pilots at the Air Force Day in 1992 in New Delhi.(Photo courtesy: Anupama Joshi)
The first batch of 12 women IAF pilots at the Air Force Day in 1992 in New Delhi.(Photo courtesy: Anupama Joshi)
Updated on Aug 24, 2020 03:40 AM IST
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ByRahul Singh, Dhamini Ratnam and Dhrubo Jyoti

In the summer of 1994, months after she was commissioned into the Indian Air Force (IAF) as part of the first batch of 12 women officers, wing commander Anupama Joshi (retired) faced a daunting prospect.

She was appointed fire officer, a prestigious position whose holder had to learn and lead the fire drill. As part of her duties, she was asked to get into a basket dangling off the hydraulic ladder and demonstrate a fire rescue from a multistoried building.

Joshi remembers being scared. “I was scared of the height; plus it was a little basket hanging seven or eight floors above the ground,” she told HT. As the hydraulic ladder was raised in the air, Joshi clutched the railing of the basket.

“I was smiling and giving a look that everything was going well. Inside, I was afraid but I knew I couldn’t say no, because then it would become about a woman’s ability to perform a duty,” she said. “So I did my little prayer, grit my teeth and successfully finished the task.”

At the time, the IAF was experimenting with inducting women and as the first batch, the pressure to perform was immense. “I was always 5-10 minutes early for every task because I knew it would never be about Anupama being late, it would become about a lady officer being late,” she said.

Almost three decades after Joshi and the “dirty dozen” –what the first batch called themselves – entered the force, attitudes towards women officers and questions of discrimination are under the spotlight with the release of the recent Hindi film, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Based on the life of one of the first women pilots to fly during combat, the film depicts stark discrimination and sexism, drawing criticism from the IAF and the air force officers’ community. In response, Saxena has defended her position and some experts have pointed out that all institutions struggle with gender inclusivity and that filmmakers can take some creative liberties with depiction.

The nepotism debate

On August 29, 2019, Karan Johar’s official Instagram account put up a poster showing Janhvi Kapoor, daughter of movie producer Boney Kapoor and late actor Sridevi, in an IAF pilot’s overalls and helmet hooked into the crank on one side, surrounded by men in similar blue overalls cheering her on. The poster was the first look of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, based on “India’s first Air Force woman officer who went to war”, the poster claimed. A second poster weeks later showed Kapoor embracing Pankaj Tripathi, who plays her father, Anup Saxena. On December 28, 2019, when Kapoor posted photographs on her Instagram account — sitting inside a helicopter in the same blue overalls, with Saxena, director Sharan Sharma and other crew members— she announced a wrap. “Can’t wait for you guys to see it,” she posted to her 8.9 million followers.

But the coronavirus pandemic made a theatrical release impossible and by June, it was announced that Netflix bought the film for 50 crore.By this time, the death by suspected suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput was roiling the film industry and stirring a debate on nepotism within Bollywood.

A Netflix promotional video showing Kapoor speaking to Saxena drew ire on YouTube against nepotism with some calling for a boycott of the film.

“When I tweeted the film looked solid, I was instantly trolled. Why? Because the film has been produced by Dharma Productions and it stars Janhvi Kapoor as Gunjan Saxena. I was called a “Dharma stooge” and much worse,” wrote critic Anupama Chopra in Film Companion.

In the first two weeks of August, Sharma, Tripathi and Kapoor gave several interviews and appealed to people to watch the movie before forming opinions. “You can’t decide the merit of a book on its cover. I know this is a democracy, and everyone is free to express what they wish to… but it will be more fruitful if people talk about the film after watching it,” Tripathi said in an interview to HT.

But the August 12 release brought fresh problems . Social media users began to call the film ‘anti-national’, not only for showing gender-based discrimination in the IAF but also for its depiction of patriotism. The IAF released a statement expressing its disappointment. A week after the release, Saxena’s batchmate Srividya Rajan claimed she – and not Saxena – was the first women pilot to fly into the Kargil war zone.

As the controversy snowballed into national news, the film’s crew and production house fell silent and insiders described shock and surprise at the hostile reception from a section of the audience and the air force – especially at the claims of factual inaccuracy – given that the film was widely publicized before and is based on books and newspaper articles.

Kapoor, Sharma and Dharma Productions didn’t respond to multiple requests for comments. Tripathi told HT, “I don’t know anything about the debate that’s going on. In any film I do, there’s nothing apart from acting that I know or even want to know. I feel one should just do their job and go.”

Mumbai-based film critic Mayank Shekhar attributed the silence to “a proper smear campaign against the film industry”. “Look at the comments on the trailers or on Instagram or any other platform. These are not spontaneous. The point is to shut people up because there is no way to engage with these comments.” A representative from Netflix refused to comment on the matter.

Air force reacts

Shortly after the film’s release, IAF sent a letter to Dharma Productions, Netflix and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), saying certain scenes and dialogues in the movie and its trailer, which were forwarded to it for viewing, were found to “portray the IAF in an undue negative light.”

“IAF is deeply concerned about the false portrayal of gender bias as institutional work culture,” a senior officer said on condition of anonymity.

The letter said as per initial understanding, Dharma agreed to represent IAF with authenticity and make all efforts to ensure the film would help inspire the next generation of officers.

The IAF said it was a gender-neutral organisation and always provided equal opportunity to both men and women. The summary of the scenes and dialogues of the script that were considered objectionable were annexed to the letter, said a second IAF officer, asking not to be named.

The letter pointed out the production house was informed about the objectionable portions and advised to delete or modify them. However, it added that instead of deleting the scenes, Dharma proposed a media plan in the run up to the film’s release and inserting a disclaimer. The letter made it clear these options were inadequate. The annexure of the IAF letter detailing its objections are not in the public domain – a questionnaire by HT received no response – conversations with officials helped draw a rough sketch of the possible disagreements.

One set pertained to scenes where Saxena’s scheduled sorties are repeatedly cancelled by the flight commander because no male pilot is willing to fly with her, and the non-cooperation of authorities to set right infrastructure problems such as the absence of toilets for women. A second set were to the depiction of junior male officers refusing to salute Saxena and her male batch mates making pejorative comments and being hostile to her. A third set was against the depiction of physical aggression and seniors forcing Saxena to enter an arm-wrestling match with a male batch mate to prove her toughness.

“Flight commanders welcome newly posted officers, they do not insult them. They groom youngsters, do not humiliate them,” tweeted Nitin Welde, IAF veteran and himself a trainer.

“Absolutely fictitious”

Within the air force community, there is deep anger and consternation over the movie’s depiction of a sexist and hostile force. “The film has smeared the reputation of an honourable service with its cooked up instances of gender bias. There may have been some teething troubles in the initial years but what has been shown in the movie is absolutely fictitious and revolting,” said a serving officer, asking not to be named.

In WhatsApp groups and personal discussions, particular anger is directed at the projection of male officers as lewd misogynists. “Do the film makers realize how those officers would be feeling about their horrible portrayal? I happen to know some of those fine officers, including the flight commander, who were posted at the Udhampur air base during that time. Forcing a woman officer to arm-wrestle with a male counterpart or asking her to change into flight overalls on the tarmac, this is nothing but fiction,” said a second serving officer.

Going the extra mile

Conversations with three former women officers threw up three sets of challenges they faced in the initial years, but all three were emphatic in saying that IAF was cooperative and backed them during any problems they faced.

The first was with outdated policies.

Joshi and other women, for example, were not detailed for night patrols initially for safety reasons but after they argued that they needed to be treated equally, it became a norm.

For the first three weeks in June 1992, her batch of 12 women walked around the Air Force Academy in Dundigal, Telangana, in civilian clothes because no uniform was designed for women. “In some cases, there was over protection of women, and I had to tell people to look at me as an officer, not as women. We must understand that for 20 years, many of these people spent treating women differently. But this didn’t mean disrespect or institutional bias,” Joshi said.

Wing commander Pamela Pereira (retired) said the force supported and nurtured women officers. She agreed that at first women pilots were a novelty, and the syllabus for the trainee cadets was different from that for men. “We had to prove ourselves more, and it was not always smooth sailing.”

The second challenge was some male officers who misbehaved with them.

Joshi explained there were some incidents where men misbehaved but the organisation had systems in place. She put up an airman for obscenity and he was court marshalled. “This would not be possible in any other organisation,” she said. “Majority were progressive thinking and supportive. A few had doubts about our abilities. But these people are in every profession. We were fighters. We knew how to tide over difficult situations,” said Rajan. Joshi pointed out that many women offices found their life partners in the forces.

The third challenge was infrastructural. All three officers said when they first arrived, facilities were scant but added that the force and fellow officers made adjustments soon.

Joshi explained that she would latch male officers’ washrooms and use them, or use facilities built for civilian women employees – clerks, stenographers. “I found the IAF the safest place for a woman to work. Later, in my fight for permanent commission, many men came forward,” said Joshi. “And, if we pledge our life for the country, finding a toilet is not that important.”

Pereira said male officers would vacate changing rooms to let her use them, and later facilities were built. “We knew we had to compromise a bit. But no woman officer was treated badly or left to fend for herself,” she added.

“No ill treatment”

Of course, the most serious charge against the film is of historical inaccuracy. Rajan, for example, said the lack of toilets was exaggerated and that women officers used a toilet of a woman medical officer in the next building -- hence, it was not a big issue.

Rajan and Saxena joined the academy in 1994 and commissioned together in June 1996 in a batch of six women. They were sent to the Udhampur air base, where they became the first women pilots in the station– doing sorties to support the army, communication, search-and-rescue and casualty evacuation.

“There was no ill treatment or humiliation. We were given equal opportunities. If the organization had problems with women, why would it induct them?” she asked. “We always had the option of complaining if any misbehaviour happened.”

When the Kargil conflict broke out in May 1999, Rajan claimed that she – and not Saxena – was part of the first team sent to the Srinagar base and flew sorties. At the time, she said, media was not allowed and reporters were only let in two weeks later, when she had finished her two-week shift and Saxena was on the frontlines. “But I was there first, before the media came there, and I was the first woman pilot to fly in Kargil. This film has erased me,” said Rajan – adding that flight log records would support her claim.

Saxena has not responded to the specific allegations – multiple texts and calls from HT went unanswered – but defended herself in a blog published on NDTV on August 17.

She quoted the Limca Book of Records to say she was the first woman to fly in a combat zone. Numerous newspaper and magazine articles also name her as the first, though some also name Rajan.

In the blog, she pointed out it was not her, but IAF that “opened the doors to the media” on her achievements. “How can anybody deny the obvious fact of me being a pioneering woman officer during the Kargil war?” she asked.

On gender bias, she agreed that there existed no discrimination at the 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,” she wrote.

Objections raised

This was the second objection raised by an arm of the military to a show or movie in recent weeks. Last month, the defence ministry wrote a letter to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), drawing attention to producers of movies and web series “distorting” the image of the Indian Army and said they should obtain a no-objection certificate from the ministry before airing such content. The government has not responded to the request. CBFC member Vaani Tripathi Tikoo pointed out that the film — which was cleared for theatrical release — was now streaming on an OTT platform that didn’t have any regulations. “We have no control on what is streaming on them, it’s not in the ambit of CBFC.”

Tikoo also said the procedure for certifying biopics and military personnel is different. “Since Prasoon Joshi became the chairperson, he has been very sensitive to that fact, and in most of our screenings, we invite military personnel to see the film. At the end of the day, we are not experts in military and defence,” she said.

“The guideline states any film which has issues of national security and defence should be viewed in purview of the permissible, it should not lead to any kind of communal violence, it shouldn’t harm national security, and should not disrespect the national emblem.”

Shohini Ghosh, director of Jamia Millia Islamia’s AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, said that had the film not committed itself to being a biopic, it may not have got mired in this debate. (The film offers a disclaimer that the events have been dramatized). “What we would have been left with is a powerful film on sexism in a hallowed male-dominated institution. Many women would be able to identify with how even if you are up to doing your job, sexism stands in the way, as the environment is built for men. The film also redefines patriotism, as not just limited to slogan-mongering jingoism, but as a love for the country that emerges from one’s own passions and sincerity. It’s patriotism that includes everyone, not just those who are at the borders,” Ghosh said.

A standing ovation

At any rate, the film and the ensuing controversy has also highlighted the giant strides made by women pilots in three decades -- from a time when they were inducted in administrative roles for 10 years with an optional five-year extension to now, when they are flight commanders and elite fighter pilots.

Joshi remembers when as cadets just three months into their training in October 1992, her batch were told they would be a special contingent at the Air Force Day parade in New Delhi. “We were super excited, especially after we were put up in the officers’ mess and everything — food, drinks — was made free for us, We would stay up all night, talking,” she said.

On October 8, 1992, Joshi led the woman contingent and they were later corralled to meet the president, prime minister and defence minister, in whose presence the then air chief NC Suri called the women his 12 angels.

“We got the loudest applause and a standing ovation from the gallery. President Shankar Dayal Sharma said this was one of the proudest moments for him,” said Joshi. At the time, there were zero women officers in the IAF. Today, there are 111.

(with inputs from Rishab Suri)

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