Is Gunjan Saxena IAF's first woman pilot to fly in combat?


The Movie Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl undoubtedly whips up the thrill, brings on the goosebumps, and exhorts viewers to jump up and salute the pilot, Gunjan, who made a name for herself in the Kargil war as Indian Air Force's first woman pilot to fly in combat.

There's no war on Kargil soil today. It is on home turf now … between two women pilots who are battling it out for the pride of position. Who was first in Kargil? Gunjan or Sreevidya?

How much of this Netflix-release movie stays faithful to the truth? Are directors allowed to distort the truth for reasons best known to them? All these and a lot of talks are doing the rounds among the public and the Indian Air Force as well and the biopic is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Years after Kargil, another woman pilot who did her combat maneuvers in the war zone has come out openly against the biopic. She is none other than Flight Lieutenant (retd) Sreevidya Rajan from Kerala who says it was she and not Gunjan, who made the first combat flight over the battle zone. As the former officer shares her thoughts about the movie with Onmanorama, one gets a glimpse of what life was like for women pilots in the early days.

The officer had no doubts about her track record until the movie came out and erased her totally from any memories of Kargil. That hurt. To this day, the lady said, she laid no claim to fame as she deemed it her duty to fight for her country. It was not for earning a name that she donned combat fatigues. Over and above all that, her gender as a woman was no reason to laud herself, for the Air Force had no man-woman discrimination and treated all equally. But when the movie came out, it was the pilot’s gender that provided the wow factor. That's when the Palakkad native decided to set the record straight and break her long years of silence. So blatantly has the Gunjan Saxena movie violated the truth, says Sreevidya.

Can truth be violated for artistic freedom?

Can truth be distorted and history violated in the name of artistic freedom of expression? While Gunjan, undoubtedly deserves to be projected, it would be in the fitness of things to mull over a few points, says Sreevidya:

The movie names Gunjan as the first woman pilot to join the Indian Air Force. Factually incorrect. Our six-woman team including Gunjan and I was the fourth batch to join the force. The three batches before us were our beacon lights.

The film has instances galore of gender discrimination during training and after. Most of them are untrue.

I was the first woman in the batch that headed for Kargil. Gunjan followed in the next batch after we had set up base and begun our sorties.

How right and justifiable is it to wipe only me off from Kargil history when both of us were very much a part of it?

Can the claim of making a "true story" and later on adding the tagline "changes have been made for the sake of the storyline," give one the license to cover up history or facts? Kargil was not a myth or story. It was a reality.

Well, the film could at least have mentioned my name and status. Cinema is a powerful medium and all those who watch the movie will believe that only Gunjan made it to the combat front. Movies can influence people, says Sreevidya.

So were you not discriminated against in the air force?

As for gender discrimination, is that not prevalent everywhere and in all spheres of life? In quite the same way, there was a small bunch who disliked our entry into their realm of activity and who looked down on us with contempt. That was true. But as portrayed in the movie, we were never kept away from active service or denied a chance to fly. Nor did we have to arm wrestle our peers to prove our mettle. There were no instances of our male contemporaries being given priority over us. On the contrary, we were backed to the hilt by a majority of officers. There were others who took a neutral stand. Women or no women….they just shrugged us off. They were least affected by our presence. But there was a minority who insisted that women would be of no effect on the battlefront. They were already prejudiced and refused to shed their bias, says the former fighter pilot.

The movie should have shown the complete support our male peers extended to us. Instead, it shows a group of officers resenting the presence of women pilots who they perceived were a threat to their fiefdom and power. The biopic inaccurately records how smart young women pilots were jeered at and shooed off by their competitive male counterparts.

Won't such portrayal of the Indian Air Force put youngsters off? How offensive can this be? Such scenes put people off when now is the time to attract young men and women to the air force. They ought to swell with pride at the very name of Indian Air Force and see in it a platform to pursue and achieve their dreams. When Bollywood wanted to dress movies in its staple masala, it should not have distanced itself from reality.

We had the freedom to report any form of abuse to higher-ups in authority. We did have our problems. We were the first batch of women to land in Udhampur station and the lack of separate washrooms and toilets were a bit bothersome. But everyone cooperated and we overcame such hiccups. But such positive points have been covered up by the movie. The climax is the worst part of it all …. so far from the truth. Gunjan and I did no air stunts or heroic acts as shown. Our job was risky, no doubt. We had to overcome challenges aplenty while on rescue missions. Maybe, a cinematic climax demands edge-of-the-seat thrills, says Sreevidya.

So how did Gunjan shine while you faded out?

Our batch touched down in Kargil at a time when any interaction with the media was forbidden. But when a reporter of a leading national channel called the office one day, I answered a few questions in my capacity as one of the first woman pilots in action, of course with the permission of my superiors. When media restrictions were lifted, Gunjan's batch was stationed there. Perhaps, I was sidelined or forgotten because the media now had more access to Gunjan and the other pilots.

Another reason why I chose to keep myself away from the limelight was the conviction that it was the officers, our male counterparts who sweated it out and gave their all to holding the bastion. I believe in gender equality. You don't deserve to be celebrated for the sole reason that you are a woman. It's for your achievements that you need to be recognized; not for your gender-based success.

I chose to react and come out in the open to counter the misconceptions and factual errors that were doing the rounds.

Sreevidya's decision to join the IAF

While Sreevidya's father was with the armed forces, her mother was a teacher in Thathamangalam in Palakkad. She had her education in Chittoor and right from a young age wanted to be a pilot. Though her choice of profession rattled her parents in the beginning, they backed her up and were proud of their pilot daughter. Though Sreevidya did not tell them about her Kargil assignment, they got to know of the events through the media.

The pilot decided to retire from active service due to certain health issues and the family now resides in Kottayam.

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