Airlift: Lifting NRI patriotism to greater heights

‘Airlift’ is based on the true incident of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the plight of the thousands of Indians trapped in a war not of their making.

The opening shot is of the Kuwait of 1990 (set re-created in Ras al Khaimah, UAE.) Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar) is an arrogant business tycoon based in Kuwait, who considers himself more Kuwaiti than Indian. He wakes up one morning to find that Iraqi troops have taken over Kuwait under the bidding of president Saddam Hussain. The Indian embassy officials have been evacuated; his high-reaching Kuwaiti friends are either absconding or hanging limply from construction cranes and he himself is manhandled and taken to the officer in charge of the Iraqi troops, who turns out to be Major Khalaf bin Zayd (Inaamulhaq) who had been richie-rich Katyal’s bodyguard on a previous visit to Baghdad.

The major gives Katyal a car sticker which pretty much guarantees him safe passage through war-ravaged Kuwait. He rushes home to discover his wife Amrita (Nimrat Kaur) and little daughter missing. He lands up at his office to find that they have magically made their way there and his irate wife demands to know where he’s been. Katyal magnanimously accommodates all his employees and their families in his office. However, it’s getting too crowded for comfort and so he gets permission to move all the Indians in Kuwait to a camp. Katyal is the lynchpin holding this merry mess together; he also gets the other two Indian moneybags in the city – Ashok and Kurien – to join forces with him in supporting these less-fortunate people. I am a little hard-pressed though to be convinced that Kurien’s supermarket has a seemingly endless supply of food to feed one lakh seventy thousand Indians for a few days at a stretch. Perhaps the director realised this point too belatedly, coz then we have Katyal and Kurien making a trip to the docks foraging for food. Katyal also establishes contact with Sanjeev Kohli (Kumud Mishra) a secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, and appeals to his humane side in getting the bureaucratic ball rolling to get these people out of Kuwait.

To give credit where it is due, although there are a couple or so sequences that seem contrived, certain scenes have been shot very realistically, such as the indiscriminate, cold-blooded violence in the streets by soldiers little older than children; there are no particularly idiotic action scenes by the hero, thank God.The chaos among so many people who have suddenly acquired refugee status; the embassy helplessness; the “babu-dom” apathy and adroitness in playing ‘pass the buck’ have all been brought to the fore well. I like the way the NRI take on India has been handled; when things are going well, an NRI considers himself as belonging to a foreign country, however, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, he suddenly considers himself to be a citizen of India and wants India to bail him out.

One wonders why Amrita is such a sourpuss through the movie. One further wonders at her sudden volte face: from urging Ranjit to escape to London, to delivering biting asides as to why he wants to be a Messiah and help the other Indians, she switches tracks to beaming with wifely pride as he escorts a Kuwaiti woman to his car. And one devoutly wishes that so much footage had not been given to the obnoxious Mr George (Prakash Belwadi.)

The continuity department needs a sharp rap on the knuckles. In the party scene where our pal Katyal is seen gyrating with belly dancers, he has a dark beard; cut to the next scene the very next morning when he hears about the city’s invasion and he’s sporting a neat salt-n-pepper affair. Subsequently, throughout the movie he looks unshaven and haggard (well in keeping with his character) while Amrita always has her locks crimped and curled and is neatly turned out. One would imagine that when soldiers are dragging random citizens out of their homes and shooting them, about the first thing an invading army would have done to make life more unbearable for the natives would be to switch off the phones, electricity and water supply but no, all lights are blazing in chez Katyal and they’re eating what looks suspiciously like tandoori chicken!

‘Airlift’ is a bit of a misnomer. The airlifting happens at the fag end of the movie, with no importance given to the actual act. The script makes it look like a cakewalk for commercial airlines like Air India and Indian Airlines to fly into a war zone and evacuate civilians. Between these two carriers and the Indian Air Force, a total of 488 flights were carried out, billed as the largest rescue operation of civilians in the world. As such, it should have received top billing rather than just a movie title.

Akshay Kumar comes across as very believable; it is quite remarkable that an action hero would be willing to be seen on screen with tears, snot and spittle and also show his age in a greying beard. On the other hand, it is an established fact that he is a director’s actor, so one cannot expect subtle nuances or thespianic contributions from him. Apparently he learnt Arabic for this role; the lines are delivered with the same heavy, rustic Punjabi-ness he brings to all his dialogues, so I guess he shouldn’t be trying this anytime soon on a real Sheikh in Dubai! Nimrat Kaur absolutely fails to impress; it is hard to credit this is the same actor who performed so effortlessly not so long ago in ‘Lunchbox.’ The focus of the writing team appears to have been on the male protagonist and her character has not been very well fleshed out. Not just her performance, but her overall look in this film calls for criticism. Apart from which, there is zero connect between the lead pair.

Inaamulhaq has done a decent job; while it stretches the credulity to imagine an Iraqi military officer reeling off chunks of Hindi dialogue, he manages to infuse an Arabic accent to his Hindi as well as English lines, kudos to him for that. Purab Kohli as Ibrahim Durrani holds his own and stands out among the crowd. Kumud Mishra has done a creditable job in emoting his frustration and helplessness. Cinematography by Priya Seth cannot be faulted. Editing (Hemanti Sarkar) could have been crisper, especially post interval when the movie begins to drag somewhat. Music by Amaal Malik and Ankit Tiwari and lyrics by Kumaar are about passable. The list of people who have produced this movie would require another page!

I think perhaps I am becoming jaded; at any rate, I have crossed the stage of being gaga just because a movie claims to be based on a true incident. ‘Airlift’ is directed by Raja Krishna Menon and it is more than a little strange that, given that this was a real-life event and also given the phalanx of writers collaborating on the story (Suresh Nair, Rahul Nangia, Ritesh Shah and Menon himself) the screenplay is not as taut as it should be. Bollywood has earlier made true-life biopics perfectly satisfactorily, such as ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,’ ‘Pan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Mary Kom.’ ‘Airlift’ has some well-executed scenes where Menon has wielded the director’s baton more capably than the pen, however, as a writer, he has given in to the Bollywood malaise of over-dramatisation, which leads to a weak script. One could wish that directors choosing topics that have inherent drama and human-interest angle would then stay away from the song-and-dance routines, but then, pigs would fly (or perhaps be air-lifted!) before this wish would be realised!

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