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Touching the skies with glory: Women officers in Indian Air Force in reality vs movie world

In the movie Gunjan Saxena, the IAF has been shown as a misogynistic force where male officers heavily drink, pass lewd remarks, drool over nude posters, dance to racy numbers, are uncomfortable with women officers and more.

There has been a lot of interest & discussion generated in the media & elsewhere over the movie “Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl”, which was released recently on the internet streaming platform Netflix. The movie is loosely based upon the account of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, who is a retired Indian Air Force (IAF) officer and former helicopter pilot. She had joined the IAF in 1996, is a 1999 Kargil War veteran, and the first Indian woman to fly in a combat zone.

While the movie has largely been appreciated for chronicling the achievements of India’s first woman officer in the IAF, it has also been roundly criticized for peddling a toxic mix of lies & downright insinuation on the professionals who proudly serve the IAF.

IAF: A Glorious Past

The Indian Air Force was established on 8 October 1932 as an auxiliary air force of the British Empire which honored India’s aviation service during World War II with the prefix Royal. It is currently the fourth largest Air Force in the world and has distinguished itself in various battles, relief operations, search and rescue missions and rapid response evacuation. IAF routinely conducts flights to the world’s highest battle field in Siachen to helipads situated up to about 20,000 feet.

During the Kargil War, the period on which the movie is based, the IAF conducted Operation Safed Sagar with much valour and success. The Indian Air Force used various assets like MiG 21, MiG 27, MiG 29, Mirage 2000, Mi-17 and various other kinds of helicopters. The IAF strikes played an important role in the capture of Muntho Dhalo and Tiger Hill by the Indian Army. Such was the coercive threat of IAF that the Pakistani F-16s largely stayed away from the conflict zone.

Women Officers in the IAF

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In terms of granting opportunities to women officers, IAF has soared past other services. According to a report tabled recently in the Parliament, Indian Air Force has the highest share of women officers in India at 13.09% among all the three defense forces in the country. Women representation in Indian Navy is 6% while the women representation in Indian Army is around 4%. Indian Air Force has opened all its arms for women officers which range from Air Traffic Controllers to combat and transport pilots. Clearly, the IAF believes in gender equality & empowerment in true sense of the word.

Women officers have excelled themselves in Kargil, Siachen and other dangerous operations. Squadron Leader Khusboo Gupta is the first IAF woman pilot to fly in Siachen. Wing Commander Shaliza Dhami has become the country’s first woman Flight Commander. She is also the first woman officer to be given permanent commission with the IAF. Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth is the first woman fighter pilot to be qualified to undertake missions by day on a fighter aircraft, having flown missions on the MiG 21. She has been joined by Flight Lieutenant Avani Chaturvedi and Flight Lieutenant Mohana Singh Jitarwal in combat role. These women officers act as role models for all the women who want to join the Indian Air Force and touch the skies.

Gunjan Saxena – The Movie: A Potpourri of Lies, Insinuation & Negativity

This week, the movie,’ Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ started streaming on the internet streaming platform, Netflix. It stars Janhvi Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi and has been produced by Dharma Productions. The movie has won praise for the acting skills of its actors, but has been severely criticized for its depiction of the IAF.

Sample some of these dialogues.

“Aaj ke baad yahan ashleel baatein bilul band. Overall ki zip khuli rakhna band. Yeh deewaaron pe deviyon ke poster lagana band.

Sir, isme Pamela ji ko kyun sazaa de rahe hain”

“Kaafi dhamaakedaar entry ki hain aapne. Aate hi gent’s toilet main toofan macha diya. Bataiye is veerta ke liye kaun sa medal diya jaye aapko”

“Kyunki yeh jagah ladies k eliye bani hi nahin hain”

“Sir aap yeh sortie rukwa dijiye.

Kyun, kya hua.

Meri phat rahi hain, matlab koi emergency ho gayee aue yeh madam rone lag gayee toh main inko sambhaloonga ya chopper ko”

“Yeh Air Force hain tumhare baap ka ghar nahin.”

“Sir woh overalls change karne ki jagah nahin thi.

Toh tarmac pe change kar leti”

“Pata hain na aaj overnight sortie hain. Male pilots ke saath room share karna hain. Haan. Ya tumhare liye special room banwa de”

“Sir mujhe izzat dene se aap logo ki izzat kam nahin hogi. I promise. Chodiye Sir, aapki soch, aapka darr ,aapki yeh party, aur aap ki nakli mardaangi aap logo ko mubarak ho.”

Still from the movie’s trailer

The movie also shows how the sorties of Gunjan Saxena are repeatedly cancelled by her Commanding Officer who also makes her do arm wrestling with a male officer to apparently teach her a lesson.

Moreover, the Indian Air Force has been shown as a misogynistic force where male officers heavily drink, pass lewd remarks, drool over nude posters, dance to racy numbers, are uncomfortable with women officers and more.

All this is extremely unfair to the IAF which takes great pride in its women officers and ensures the best environment to all of its officers.

The Blowback

Stunned by this shocking depiction of its Force in this manner, the IAF sent a complaint letter to the Central Board of Film Certification. The letter stated “Dharma Productions had agreed to represent Indian Air Force (IAF) with authenticity and make all efforts to ensure that the film helps to inspire the next generation of IAF officers.

However, when the trailer of the movie was released recently, it was observed that “certain scenes and dialogues in the movie and its trailer, which was forwarded to this office for viewing, have been found to portray the IAF in an undue negative light.

In the aim to glorify the screen character of ‘Ex-Fit Lt Gunjan Saxena’, M/s Dharma Productions presented some situations that are misleading and portray an inappropriate work culture especially against women in the IAF.

That the organisation is gender neutral and has always provided an equal opportunity to both male and women personnel. In view of the above, the issue of grant of NOC for the release of the movie will be considered after deleting or suitably modifying the scenes in order to cater to the observations mentioned”

The next day, Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of National Commission of Women (NCW) asked the makers of the biopic to discontinue its screening. She tweeted “If that is so, the film maker must apologize and discontinue the screening. Why showing something which is portraying our own forces in bad light specially when it’s not true.”

General Ved Prakash Malik PVSM, AVSM, who was the Chief of the Indian Army during the Kargil War, said, “Agree with IAF. I have respect for real Gunjan Saxena. But this film makers appear totally ignorant of military psychology & generally encouraging conduct in units. With few exceptions, lead character shows lack of confidence which is seen in lady officers of armed forces.”

Major Navdeep Singh, Advocate, Punjab & Haryana High Court, adds “The Indian Air Force is one of the most gender-neutral organizations and has been at the forefront of promoting equality with the most progressive gender policies, and hence portraying it in such a manner is disservice to this great force. Though in a vibrant democracy I do not quite agree with organisations writing to the censor board, but in my opinion there should be a strong official public statement or rebuttal issued by the IAF on the untrue depiction. A public opinion on the issue must be built”.

Clearly, the film makers have stuck a discordant note with the masses.

Woman Officers and Indian Air Force

To find out more about the situation that prevailed in the IAF in those early years of women officers, I spoke with Flight Lieutenant Promila Dhaka, who had served in IAF from 2001-2006. During the course of her career, she had served at various stations including commands. As one of the earliest woman officer in the IAF, she saw the gradual transformation in IAF firsthand as more women officers started joining the force. I sought her views on the movie and how women officers are actually treated by the IAF. Here is what she had to share:

“Commanding Officer is like the father of the unit and he treats everyone equally, motivates everyone and protects all officers. The movie shows the CO in a very poor light.”

“In the initial days there used to be common infrastructure. However, gradually separate infrastructure was also built. There used to be very few women officers but the male officers were always protective and went out of their way to help out.”

“The IAF helped me to settle down even post retirement. It helped me to pursue a course at IIM-A to prepare myself for future opportunities. The organization deeply cares for its own.”

To make the movie more dramatic, the movie makers have ended up casting aspersions on one of the finest organisations in the country and have strayed far from the truth.

Truth is Beautiful. Insinuation Isn’t

Just as every organization undergoes change and adapts with the time, so too does the Indian Air Force. As has been pointed out, it has the largest percentage of women officers. The recent Supreme Court judgment on permanent commission to women officers will impact it most. Its women officers have already shown their grit and mettle. The sky is the limit for women officers in the IAF.

Women officers in IAF have earned several laurels for their professionalism. During Balakot Operation last year, Squadron Leader Minty Aggarwal who was serving as the Flight Controller of IAF played a significant role in battling the enemy. She spotted a large package of Pakistan Air Force planes heading towards Nowshera and timely alerted the IAF teams. This earned her a Yudh Sena Medal subsequently making her the first woman in Indian military history to win such an honour. This is a watershed moment & IAF has again been at the forefront of it.

At a time when the country is facing twin challenges to its borders, women officers not only in IAF but also in Army & Navy are working shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts in preserving the territorial integrity of the nation. Their sacrifices, valour and patriotism should not be belittled by a twisted piece of cinema. Controversy sells but to use it to besmirch the ethics & professionalism of IAF is a dirty trick to pull.

Peddling lies in the garb of cinematic freedom is just not acceptable. It is hoped that the movie makers will realize their folly and mischief that their wild flights of fancy have produced on celluloid and make amends by heeding to the changes suggested by the IAF. That will be their real contribution towards India.

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Krishna Kant
Krishna Kant Sharma, is a New Delhi based Technology professional with extensive experience in IT, Telecom & Digital domains .He has varied experience,having worked with the Central Government as well the private sector. His interest areas include Politics, Military Strategy, Technology & Gender Rights. He is also an avid sportsman & a keen philatelist.

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