The actor talks about her starring role in 'Gunjan Saxena', its parallels with her mother's life, and how the real Saxena helped her nail the character's body language
It’s one thing to simulate playing an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer flying helicopters into a war zone, it’s quite another to authentically portray the only Indian woman to serve in the Kargil War in 1999. Janhvi Kapoor was constantly conscious of the import of that responsibility as she stepped in the light blue shirt and blue grey trousers with the nametag "Gunjan Saxena" clipped on to the IAF uniform.
To prepare for her second lead role in a feature film, the 23-year-old spent time with the real Saxena, trained and honed her skills. She also accepted that the social media onslaught against her privileged background, as the daughter of Sridevi and Boney Kapoor, is not something she needs to fight but use as impetus. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What elements from your meetings with Gunjan Saxena were you able to incorporate into your performance?
We have a conventional idea that a person from the Armed Forces would be intimidating, aggressive, rough and tough, but she was not like that all. She has all that grit, ambition and bravery but it’s a silent strength. Her outward demeanour is gentle, feminine and warm. She had all these experiences but still is so blasé about it, like I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to fly, so I worked hard and achieved it but the other officers also put in as much effort as I did. That was very refreshing.
Sharan (Sharma, director) identified something called a "Gunju smile". It’s not a particular way in which she smiles but it’s a sincere, from-the-heart smile, which has innocence in it, which is how Gunjan ma'am is too. He wanted to retain that childlike quality.
Is there anything specific she pointed out?
We had another lady officer to instruct me on the body language of walking in a uniform but we realised that there was such a contrast between how this officer walked and how Gunjan ma’am carried herself. Gunjan ma’am was on set and noticed this right away. She pointed out that one does not need to try to be stiff or more erect because once you wear that uniform, the gait and posture changes automatically, which was true. She said if you do more than this then it will be like a Bollywood film.
What other training was required to play an Air Force pilot?
A lot of physical training: obstacle course training, march-past training, dhava training, training in how to hold a gun, how to shoot, savdhan, vishram, different types of salutes. I did these drills every day for 45 days plus weight training to lose the weight I had gained (to play the younger Saxena) and also to build strength and stamina. My entire day was spent going from one ground to another or from one gym to another and in between going to the production office for script readings.
Later, Gunjan ma’am familiarised me with the interiors of the chopper, the logistics and technicalities, including which switch is where, how to operate it and what it feels like. I also got a lot of on-field experience when we were doing the aerial sequences in the chopper in Georgia. So by the time we were back in India doing the interior chopper sequences, I knew how it felt and what to do.
Did this experience teach you anything specific about yourself?
I have gotten to know myself better as an actor. Through this film my confidence as an actor has increased and I think that has more to do with Gunjan Saxena’s story than anything else because her sense of self-belief and sticking to her dream, her focus, were very strong. I picked this up while playing this part. She was constantly having to prove herself and though she got all the chances, people around her kept telling her she was not good enough or not meant for this and I felt, if she could get through those obstacles then it’s possible to get through anything as long as your mind is strong, you are honest and work hard.
Your mother, Sridevi, and Gunjan were both working women breaking the mould in their respective fields. Did you note any parallels between their experiences?
Not specifically, but overall even mom's approach to things was similar to Gunjan Saxena’s. The environment and the time during which she really became big was—and is—a sexist environment and there weren't equal opportunities in the industry even to the extent there are now. But she didn't ever tell me that it was unfair. Mom just worked hard and tirelessly from the age of four and became bigger than some of her male contemporaries. There were movies that were riding on her shoulders, none of which were called “female-oriented" films. She achieved what she did only through her work, just like Gunjan ma’am. They both let their work do the talking.
The obstacles for you are partly the opposite—facing scrutiny for being a child of the industry, who got a foot in the door.
I actually think it works advantageously because it will save me from getting complacent. I know some of it is not constructive criticism. Yes, there is resistance, I can't deny that, but I will do what I can to overcome that—for myself, for the film, for the people involved. It will only push me. In the worst case they will have their opinions, but the more work I do and the better I get perhaps people will feel that what they are saying is unfounded. It’s a process of growth. You can't be bogged down by it.
What’s coming up next?
As of now Rooh Afzana is ready and we are around halfway through with Dostana 2. Let’s see what else comes up, but I know that in order to be a complete artist I want to fill myself with so many experiences, so much learning about the craft and emotions and polish my skill set completely so I can experience as many different roles as possible. I want to do memorable work and I really want to touch people's lives because I know how much cinema has touched my life.
'Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl' will stream on Netflix from 12 August.
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