New Delhi: Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena (retd), who is caught in controversy over a Bollywood film based on her life, was neither the first woman to be posted to the Indian Air Force’s critical Udhampur helicopter base, nor the first woman to fly during the Kargil battle of 1999, according to her coursemate, Flight Lieutenant Sreevidya Rajan.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rajan said she watched the movie Sunday evening and was shocked by the “twisting of facts” by the filmmakers. Rajan was so peeved that she also took to Facebook to detail her anguish and set the record straight.
Contrary to what the film portrays, Rajan was also posted at Udhampur along with Saxena and underwent the ups and downs of the journey.
“Both of us were posted to Udhampur in 1996 but in the movie, it was shown that she was the only lady pilot posted at the unit. Since the two of us were the first lady pilots to be posted to that helicopter unit, we were sceptical about our acceptance in the male-dominated niche area of flying,” Rajan wrote in her Facebook post.
Rajan admitted that both she and Saxena were received with preconceived notions and prejudices from a few colleagues.
“However, there were enough officers to support us. We were under strict scrutiny and certain mistakes of ours were met with corrective actions which may have been overlooked had it been done by our male counterparts,” she said.
“We had to work harder than our counterparts to prove ourselves to be at par with them. Some were not happy to share the professional space with us, but the majority accepted and treated us as fellow officers working towards a common goal,” she said.
The retired officer, who is now based in Kerala, said the woman pilots never faced any humiliating demonstrations of physical strength, as shown in the movie, nor were they ill-treated or humiliated by male officers.
“Our flying began within a few days of our arrival and was never interrupted or cancelled for petty reasons as wrongly portrayed in the movie. The squadron commander was a thorough professional. He was a very strict and tough officer who took us to task whenever there was a mistake from our side… be it male or female,” Rajan said.
However, there were no separate toilet facilities and changing rooms for ladies in the unit, something the movie portrayed. Rajan said after initial difficulties, “we shared the limited resources with fellow officers and they always accommodated and helped us whenever it was needed”.
Gunjan Saxena did not go to Kargil first
In the movie, Gunjan Saxena was shown as the only woman pilot to fly in Kargil operations, and Rajan called it “factually incorrect”.
“We were posted together to Udhampur and when the Kargil conflict started, I was the first woman pilot to be sent along with the male counterparts in the first detachment of our unit which was deployed at Srinagar,” Rajan said.
Rajan flew missions in the conflict area even before Saxena’s arrival at Srinagar, she said.
“After a few days of operation, Gunjan Saxena came to Srinagar with the next set of crew. We actively participated in all operations given to us which included casualty evacuation, supply drop, communication sorties, SAR (search and rescue),” she said.
Another point where the film takes liberties with the facts is when it shows Saxena rescuing her flying instructor after his chopper was shot down by Pakistani invaders.
Filmmakers twisted facts for publicity
Rajan said she and Saxena were posted together at two stations. “Being her coursemate and a good friend, I believe that the filmmakers have twisted the facts given by Gunjan for the sake of publicity. She is a brilliant officer and a thorough professional,” she said.
Rajan said Gunjan Saxena had many achievements during her career, which should have been portrayed to inspire the younger generation, instead of showing her as a weak and oppressed victim in certain scenes.
“As the pioneers of women pilots, we were treated with utmost respect and it was our responsibility to live up to the expectations and pave the way for future generations. The movie is sending out a wrong message about the lady officers of IAF there by demeaning the prestigious organisation of our country,” she said in her Facebook post.
Rajan also claimed that even though she was the first woman pilot to fly in Kargil, she had never said so at any forum “due to my strong belief in gender equality”.
“In Kargil operations, male pilots had flown extensively and faced more hardships than us. But they never got or sought any publicity. We probably were given this fame because of our gender, which I do not support. In defence services, there is no disparity between male or female. We are all officers in uniform,” she said.