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Gunjan Saxena got it all wrong

By Group Captain NITIN WELDE (retd)
August 20, 2020 08:44 IST
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'You have not understood the heart of the Indian Air Force,' notes IAF Veteran Nitin Welde.

Janhvi Kapoor in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

Image: Janhvi Kapoor in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

‪I am an Indian Air Force Veteran and today I write to you in reference with the movie Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl.

My career in the Indian Air Force gave me great amount of exposure and I was extremely lucky to have some great assignments in India and abroad.

I have some awesome experiences while working with women officers in general and in the flying branch in particular.

I have been voicing my opinion about the movie on various forums. This informed opinion comes out of my own experiences.

Here is a summary of some facts:

  • The first batch of Women Pilots passed out with my course in December 1994.
  • The second batch of Women Pilots trained together in the Air Force Academy on Kiran aircraft.
  • The third batch of Women Pilots trained together in the Helicopter Training School.
  • The fourth batch (Gunjan's batch) trained together in the Helicopter Training School.
  • I trained Shaliza Dhami who then went on to become the first woman Flying Instructor of the Indian Air Force. She is presently the first woman Flight Commander of an operational unit.
  • I was Flight Commander of 132 Flight, Udhampur (yes, the same one as Gunjan). We had several Women Officers who made up 30% of our pilot strength.
  • I commanded a unit in which Women Officers were 30% of total pilot strength.

At the outset, let me compliment the good work done by all actors. They have perfectly played their parts as allotted.

You have been very authentic in display of the uniform, the offices and the briefing rooms of the Indian Air Force. The scenes and story between the family members is also very realistic. Great job there too.

‪Every story needs a challenge and rebirth/revival of the protagonist. I am aware of the 'Story Spine' as well as Joseph Campbell's formula of Storytelling. Thus, am fully conscious that you wanted to show the challenges faced by Gunjan Saxena.

Dear Movie Maker, then there are areas where you have not done well at all. In your need for creative freedom, you have depicted some great institutions in poor light.

To me, these institutions are pillars of the Indian Air Force. These have great contribution to nurturing the growth of every pilot of the Indian Air Force. Here is a debrief (Pilots do not give feedback, they debrief)

Flight Commander

The Flight Commander is the busiest, most efficient and the strictest of them all. Yet he is the most loved one. ‪

He is like a bandmaster; his only job is to tune and retune the music so that melody emerges. You cannot do this without knowing each team member.

The needs of every member are known to the Flight Commander and he spends hours ensuring the different gears move together to make the unit perform. This is a tough job.

There exists no work-life balance for a Flight Commander. But that is where it becomes most satisfying tenure. The boys and girls never forget you and you cherish memories of your Flight Commandership.

Debrief: Flight Commanders welcome newly posted officers, they do not insult them. They groom youngsters, they do not humiliate them.

They uphold the institution of the Commanding Officer. They do not let anyone talk loosely about anyone or anything in front of them.

Surely not about the Commanding Officer or another officer. A pilot prepared for a sortie is the most motivated soldier and never does a Flight Commander kill that motivation. He doesn't pamper juniors so much that they start to chalao him'.

You have not understood the greatness of this institution: The Flight Commander. You got it wrong here.

 

Gunjan Saxena with Janhvi Kapoor

IMAGE: Gunjan Saxena with Janhvi Kapoor.

The Commanding Officer

This is the most coveted assignment in the armed forces. The designation, responsibility and authority are unique. It cannot be compared to any other designation.

Only a few get chosen for that job and that selection is based on years of consistent good performance. Apart from great professional expertise, these officers are judged on their maturity and compassion.

Meet any ex-Commanding Officer and he makes it a point to tell you which unit he commanded. COs are super proud of their Command.

Debrief: Commanding Officers know every nook and corner of their unit. Hence, they know details like there is no changing room.

They are careful in their language and their demeanour is worth emulating. The CO is aware of everything that happens in the unit.

They do not get surprised in the briefing room, leave alone shocked. They let the Flight Commander run the unit not 'chalao' them. COs are compassionate towards youngsters, especially when they are going through a tough time.

Every Commanding Officer of the Indian Air Force knows the pulse of the unit. Finally, it is their unit and they are proud of that.

You have not understood the revered institution of the Commanding Officer. You got it wrong here too.

Pankaj Tripathi with Janhvi Kapoor

IMAGE: Pankaj Tripathi with Janhvi Kapoor in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl.

Youngsters

These are the real 'karta dharta' of the unit. The unit is led by the Commanding Officer and Flight Commander but gets operational thanks to this team.

These team-mates bond with each other like a family. Their age is such that they are full of masti and hungama. They work hard, play hard, and party harder.

Bring on a mission and they change their bearing within a minute. They work together in the unit, but bond together on food, drinks, and dance. They are the heart of the unit.

Debrief: Unit-mates help you to settle down in a new unit, they don't make your life miserable. They are a team and will always adjust for other mates too. They groom the new officer by interacting, not by running away.

They are on the job trainers and ensure that the new guy or girl is trained in all aspects Flying, Sports, Ethos, Traditions (bar traditions included).

Indian Air Force pilots do not chicken out from flying with anyone as a Co-Pilot. They have trust in the training academy and know that the youngster has passed without any dilution of standards.

You have not understood the heart of the Indian Air Force. You got it wrong here too.

Debrief: The Indian Air Force is an organisation wherein officers from all branches take on individual responsibilities. Mentoring is an integral part of our process.

The best part is that it has never been documented -- it is the rich heritage and strength of the Indian Air Force.

As an organization, we trust each other and boost the confidence of young team members. This is seen across branches of the Indian Air Force, whether it is a young ATC officer handling RT or a young logistician signing contracts.

Flying, especially in the young days is challenging and is roughly half skill and half motivation/self-confidence. The ecosystem makes sure that the pilot remains motivated to fly each day. We understand that a motivated pilot, irrespective of seniority, is a force to reckon with.

I am sure by now you have received enough debrief from everyone on gender equality and treatment given to Women Officers.

I am confident that I can give you some insights into that aspect from a male officer perspective.

Being a strong supporter of gender-neutral talent, my insights are from years of experience and some real-life first-hand stories. But let us leave that for some other day.

My debrief is specifically intended to make you understand the culture of the Indian Air Force.

Names and personalities will come and go, but certain institutions have a greater responsibility than we can ever fathom.

You have portrayed systematic demeaning/victimisation of an officer and that is just not acceptable.

Next time you want to make a movie about the Indian Air Force, please do keep Creative Freedom aside and give full weightage to Organisation Culture. Your movie will do well, and you will earn the respect of countrymen.

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Group Captain NITIN WELDE (retd)
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