A labour camp in Kuwait. It’s past midnight. The workers are asleep. One of them gets up to drink some water. The next moment, a giant explosion tears the camp apart. It’s a reminder of terror, of how peace and life can be disrupted by war and death. At any moment.
Airlift, co-written and directed by Raja Krishna Menon, is about how approximately 2 million Indians, living in Kuwait, managed to return safely to India. Set in 1990, when Saddam Hussain’s party took control of the oil-rich country of Iraq, Airlift is about unsung heroes who rose to the occasion. While the Indian government choose to laze in apathy.
Airlift is no Argo, the 2012 Oscar-winning Hollywood movie that dealt with the US government’s evacuation mission, for diplomats from sectarian war-torn Iran. It’s less sophisticated. Though it’s based on well-researched facts, Airlift has plenty of melodramatic moments. In fact, Bollywood is written all over it. Parts of the film are soaked in tenderness and romance, and tend to distract from the main story. Nevertheless, Airlift handles the plot seriously, and finishes as a decent thriller-drama with some intense performances.
In what is believed to be the largest civilian evacuation in history, around 1,70,000 people were airlifted by Air India from Kuwait in 1990. Although there had been threats around mass-evacuation, the Indians living in Kuwait had Saddam’s permission to leave the country, thanks to New Delhi’s amiable relations with Baghdad. Most of the Indian immigrants in the country were skilled labourers and small-time business men. When the war struck, these people had to leave behind their life-savings and flee. Indian diplomats in Kuwait had already left the country, and the External Affairs ministry in New Delhi was largely non-responsive.
Akshay Kumar’s Ranjit Katiyal is loosely based on real people– Sunny Mathews, also known as Toyota Sunny, and Mr. Vedi. They played a significant role in uniting Indians in Kuwait, communicating with bureaucrats in India, Kuwait and Baghdad, and organising the rescue mission. An influential person with terrific negotiation skills, Katiyal speaks to Iraqi officers in Kuwait, travels to Baghdad, sets up a refugee camp in Kuwait, makes rapid phone calls to India, and facilitates the evacuation process. His wife blames him for being irresponsible. Some of the Indians in the camp accuse him of trying to ‘play leader’. But Katiyal, like the ideal captain of a sinking ship, stays composed and focused. He is a one-man army.
In the initial scenes, Katiyal is portrayed as a ruthless and shrewd businessman, who basks in Kuwait’s profitable opportunities. While his wife Amrita (Nimrat Kaur) wants to return to India at some point, Delhi doesn’t figure in Katiyal’s plans. There’s nothing in India, he says contemptuously. But when the first sign of war hits him, Katiyal becomes a new man. Kuwait, the foreign land, abandons him. And he determines on returning home, to India. Katiyal goes to his slain driver’s house to inform his wife of her husband’s death. He resolves to stay back in Iraq to help his employees and other Indians leave Kuwait. He lashes out at his friends, who laugh at this newly found love for India. Overnight, Katiyal becomes too good to be true.
The transformation of Katiyal’s character is overemphasised because the director (Raja Krishna Menon) wants Airlift to infuse patriotism and humaneness. However, Airlift‘s sense of patriotism is ambiguous. For instance, in the film, Purab Kohli plays Ibrahim, an Indian who rescues and takes home an isolated Kuwaiti woman. With characters like Ibrahim, Airlift tries to rise above the concept of nationality, and speaks for a peaceful, borderless world. But then, by stressing on its love for a politicised nation, the film contradicts itself. Wars have always been products of jingoism, patriotism and greed. The film touts the same patriotic and jingoistic fervour that political parties in India routinely fish out. For instance, against Pakistanis like Ghulam Ali.
Bollywood can always rely on Akshay Kumar to make a serious film. He manages to strike a balance between brainless films like Singh is Bling and intelligent films like Baby. His screen presence and restrained performance is what shoulders Airlift. He doesn’t try to make Katiyal a superhero. Absent are the smug smiles and sharp stares. Akshay’s Katiyal is a human being who sincerely tries to rise above mediocrity. The other standout performance is by Nimrat Kaur. This one-film-old actress powerfully holds her own against Akshay, and in one crucial scene, even shouts down everyone else. Notable mentions include Prakash Belawadi, who plays Georgekutty, an irksome south Indian (again), and Malayalee star Lena Kumar, who plays.
Airlift is an important film. The story it narrates is incredible and real. The film is made at a scale India has rarely seen before. And it’s convincingly executed. Best of all, it reinforces the fact that Bollywood is capable of making serious thrillers.
The Airlift review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.