Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur, Inamulhaq, Prakash Belawadi, Purab Kohli
For their film Airlift, the director-actor team of Raja Krishna Menon and Akshay Kumar had trained their sights on a docudrama depicting Indian history’s little-known glorious chapter, a gigantic rescue mission during the 1990 Iraq-Kuwait war. How does the experiment work out?
On August 1, 1990 Saddam Hussain-led Iraq invaded Kuwait in the dead of the night. Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait city and their plundering troupes turned a thriving country into burning hell. Overnight thousands of people lost their homes and livelihoods. Despite India being on friendly terms with Iraq, 170000 Indian expatriates based in Kuwait suffered the same plight. For almost a month, they had to survive in appalling conditions. Once they were enjoying the comforts of their host country but now they were just refugees-homeless, penniless and often even without any valid travel documents.
Indian Airforce along with civilian national airlines-Air India and Indian Airlines then arranged a massive rescue operation where 477 flights brought back more than 100000 stranded Indians. But even to avail of that facility, these expats had to travel more than 1000 km in searing desert heat to the nearest neutral country- Jordan.
This feat remains unparalleled in aviation history but has surprisingly never received its due from Indian press or public.
The hero here is Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar), a fictional character amalgamated from many real life heroes who played crucial role in that crisis. The overnight Iraqi takeover of Kuwait turns Katyal’s life perspective upside down. A once ruthless businessman residing in a palatial mansion, hobnobbing with the local glitterati and thoroughly disowning his Indian roots, Katyal suddenly realizes that he cannot remain immune to the pain of the swarm of homeless, helpless Indians coming to his office to take shelter. Declining the Iraqi army commander’s (Inaamulhaq) offer to pay up and leave Kuwait with his family, he instead ropes in a few other businessmen friends and sets up a camp for stranded Indians. Even his wife (Nimrat Kaur) is surprised to see his transformation and initially refuses to side with him. Getting Indian authorities to help in repatriation proves the main stumbling block but a kind-hearted civil servant (Kumud Mishra) somehow goads the government machinery into action. A great rescue operation gets underway but there are going to be many obstacles on this path!
· Director and co-writer Raja Krishna Menon weaves a credible, interesting human drama out of the grim historic saga. He shows us how adversity and human suffering sometimes triggers heroism and compassion in the most unlikely people. He also manages to infuse the patriotic fervor without jingoism.
· Crisp editing ensures nice pacing.
· The scale on which the film is mounted is impressive. The dusty desert and war scenes are superbly shot in locations like Ras Al Khaima (UAE) and Rajasthan.
· Akshay Kumar in a salt-and-pepper beard plays the most compelling role of his career. His screen transition from a cut-throat businessman to a compassionate social worker feels genuine and touching.
· The supporting cast is excellent. Nimrat Kaur as the hero’s nagging wife, Kumud Mishra as the sympathetic civil servant, Purab Kohli as a person desperately searching for his lost bride and Inaamulhaq as the cunning Iraqi commander are quite good but the standout performance is by Prakash Belawadi who plays the constantly irritated, irritating middle-aged nay-sayer to perfection.
· The story never reaches fever pitch.
· In a movie of this scale, a few more interesting characters and related incidents would have added more life. The proceedings sometimes seem dry and repetitive because the focus is only on only a handful of characters.
· The horrible living conditions endured by those stranded Indians only get a passing mention.
· Addition of songs and a fight sequence could have been avoided.
Both, Raja Krishna Menon and Akshay Kumar should be lauded for making this film and making it so well. They have managed to highlight a neglected chapter of recent Indian history. They have showed how heroic was that little-celebrated air-rescue mission accomplished on a never before scale! The comparison with Hollywood rescue drama Argo is not at all necessary. Airlift stands tall on its own!
As an expatriate based in Gulf, I could empathize with the core theme even better. The message of this film comes across loud and clear when the hero says in the end, “At times, I am still cynical of the way India runs but never do I ask again- ‘What it has ever done for me’!”