Janhvi Kapoor on her gratifying tribute to Gunjan Saxena and weathering the nepotism storm
Janhvi Kapoor isn’t disheartened or sad. As she talks to us ahead of the release of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, her spirits haven’t dipped in light of recent events. The film — a biopic of one of India’s first female pilots in combat — has come in for severe online backlash. There have been calls for a boycott. The trailer, which dropped on August 1, has 1.5 lakh dislikes. All this follows the tragic demise of Sushant Singh Rajput, and the ‘insider-outsider’ debate it has stirred.
Janhvi says she still feels positive about the venture. “I think it’s important to consider people’s sentiments. If they are feeling something, you can’t invalidate that. You should respect it and I do.” Instead, she has opted to take the situation in her stride. “I can either get bogged down by it or use it to prepare myself. I know now they won’t settle for anything short of outstanding. I’ll try to get there, so they won’t have anything to point a finger at.”
Three films in, Janhvi is no stranger to a tense release atmosphere. Her debut project, Dhadak (2018), was shadowed by the demise of her mother, legendary actor Sridevi. Janhvi’s mentor and producer, Karan Johar, has been at the centre of the nepotism backlash in Bollywood. In an earlier interview, Janhvi admitted that her career was fast-tracked because of her background. If so, how is she navigating accusations of being just a star kid who had it easy?
“Where you come from doesn’t matter as much as what you do with it,” Janhvi contends. “I have never taken my background for granted. I have never taken advantage of it. I have never been complacent. And I do believe I have something to offer, and I know that people believe it too.” She adds that she can’t feel ‘sorry or apologetic’ about her identity. Rather, she wants to do something good with it. “I love (acting) as much as the next person. It’s the same amount of love and passion. No one is less or more deserving, depending on where they come from.”
That said, she respects the call for a level playing field. “I understand they feel there’s a need for a certain equilibrium to be created. I can’t advocate for their side but I can be understanding of it.” All artistes, Janhvi maintains, deserve to flourish. “If anyone feels stifled, that’s a horrible feeling. I’m being able to do what I love and I will keep doing it as long as I can.”
For the film, Janhvi trained closely with the real Gunjan Saxena. The biopic traces her journey from a young aspirant to conducting high-risk rescue operations in the Kargil War. The combat sequences were shot in Georgia, featuring real Cheetah Helicopters.
“Gunjan ma’am familiarised me with the chopper and how to operate it,” Janhvi shares. “The technicalities and logistics were a huge part. More important, however, was understanding her psyche and her approach to things. The way she was brought up played a huge role in shaping her future and the future of women in aviation.”
All along her journey, Gunjan is put down by several authority figures, from her commanding officers in the air force to her own brother (Angad Bedi). Even her mom suggests she settle down instead of chasing her dreams. The film highlights the various levels of sexism and condescension women aspirants face. “A lot of this casual or blatant sexism is a result of years and years of conditioning,” Janhvi notes, “not just for the men in society but also the women. So I hope the film is a glimpse of a nudge in the right direction.”
Pankaj Tripathi, who plays Gunjan’s steadfast, supportive father, says this was an important story to tell. “A progressive father like Anup Saxena was rare in North India in the’80s. Even today, men like him are rare in our society. This was the reason I wanted to engage with this project.”
While tackling urgent themes, Sharan Sharma’s film packs in a smattering of humour. At a party, Gunjan and her brother dance to My Name is Lakhan, the iconic number of Janhvi’s uncle Anil Kapoor. Another gag is built around Gunjan’s nervousness at the SSB exams. Unable to name an issue of national importance, she lists a range of Bollywood trivia, from the Raja Babu controversy to the sale of pomeranians after Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!
The scene was drawn from life, Janhvi reveals. “They actually asked her that question and she gave some other Bollywood fun fact. It’s so filmy yet it really happened.” The same applies to the presence of Anup Saxena. As the film’s emotional pivot, Pankaj builds his performance around his trademark humour. Something as passing as a dinner table scene is enlivened by his nods and pauses. He suggests lightness and warmth that's rarely seen in military movies (he still nails the template though, sipping fine whiskey and training his daughter for the field).
“The first rule of storytelling is to engage your audience,” Pankaj says. “If I‘ve managed to hook you, even if I am saying something serious, you will listen. This is why I keep creating these moments to trap your attention.” A good performance, Pankaj adds, need not discount entertainment. “Often in the name of realism, we become too bloodless. So I try to keep blood in my performances. My characters should feel like real human beings. If you look around and observe, the world is full of tiny humorous details.”
In a memorable scene, Anup is joined by his son for a drink. When told that he has always giving Gunjan a free rein, he does not react or break into a speech. Instead, Pankaj dials it down, simply telling his boy he shouldn’t be drinking. “It was a beautifully written scene,” Pankaj says, “The way it sums up, it has more subtext than text. We shot it one night in the lawn area of the house and had great fun doing it.”
Janhvi’s upcoming film is Roohi Afzana. A horror-comedy, the film also stars Rajkummar Rao and Varun Sharma. She’s also there in Dostana 2, with Kartik Aaryan and Laksh Lalwani. Beyond that, there’s Takht, Bombay Girl and the rumoured remake of the Malayalam survival thriller Helen. “It’s too early to discuss other projects,” Janhvi says, as Pankaj cuts in: “Phele toh corona khatam ho...” (first let this pandemic end).
Watch Gunajan Saxena: The Kargil Girl on Netflix.