Anyone who read the newspapers in 1990 (I didn’t!) would be well aware of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. A debt-ridden Iraq sent in its forces with a free hand. Kuwaitis were plundered, humiliated and massacred. Surprisingly, there was no real action against Iraq. India’s government, under VP Singh, was standing on shaky ground. A hundred and seventy thousand Indian expatriates were stranded in Kuwait. The embassy in Kuwait went for a toss. The Kuwaiti government had gone. In a conflict zone were a hundred and seventy thousand Indians who had no clue about the next step. Two men: Sunny Matthews and Harbhajan Singh Vedi became the men-in-charge, heading a 51-member committee. The character played by Akshay Kumar (Ranjit Katiyal) is an amalgamation of those two men. External Affairs Minister (later Prime Minister of India) Inder Kumar Gujral helped lay the groundwork for the evacuation. Over a course of fifty-nine days, Air India operated four hundred and eighty-eight flights to evacuate the stranded Indians. Guinness later recorded this as the single largest human evacuation in the history of mankind, way ahead of the Berlin Airlift (1948-49). One thing that should be highlighted is that Indian aircraft also evacuated stranded airline personnel from Pakistan on humanitarian grounds.
DIRECTION: Raja Krishna Menon does a great job at the helm. His direction is wonderful. There are so many places where a film like this could have stagnated but his sole focus seems to be getting the Indians out of the burning cauldron, which he achieves successfully. This is just the month of January and already there seem to be two contenders for Awards (even though they are pretentious) in Direction: Bejoy Nambiar for Wazir and Raja Krishna Menon for Airlift.
STORY: Though the events in the film are largely inspired from reality, there is a certain amount of creative license taken by the makers. I’m usually the sore kind of nut who hates having history meddled with and that was the sole thing, apart from Aditya Pancholi, that I didn’t like in Bajirao Mastani. Here however, the license is valid. The character of Katiyal gives the film a different kind of meaning. Rich Indian-origin guy who gives zero ‘effs’ about India and Indians helps evacuate a massive number of people. The characters are extremely well-written and the story has a spark and a pace that makes it exciting. A round of applause for the team of writers: Suresh Nair, Rahul Nangia, Ritesh Shah and Menon.
SCREENPLAY: A well-executed screenplay. Moves along smoothly. The length of the film, just over two hours, is surprising. One might think that the makers compromised on a lot of scenes but it isn’t so. Others may say that the song at the very beginning of the film was needless. For me, it drove home the intensity of how badly the invasion of Kuwait affects its occupants. One night, one of the richest men of the country is dancing and singing, the next day Saddam Hussein marches right in and says ‘GOOD MORNING’! The fluidity of the screenplay makes sure that it never runs into dangerous waters. There are many scenes that stand-out in the film but the ones that will definitely bring tears to your eyes/give you a lump in the throat/both, are: A. The one where the Tiranga is pitched atop the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman and B. When KK sings Vande Maataram in the background.
EDITING: Hemanti Sarkar does a good job at the editing table. The film moves quickly but engages you in a manner such that you grasp onto every detail.
MUSIC: The film has nice, hummable music. Soch Na Sake is a nice track. Dil Cheez Tujhe Dedi adds a bit of fun before the storm. Another enjoyable part of it is the fusion of Middle-Eastern themed instrumentals and Bollywood vocals. Mera Nachan Nu is a departure from the same old boring Bollywood Bhangra tracks. It has some lovely instruments and lyrics. My favourite from the entire album is Tu Bhoola Jise, which plays towards the end of the film. KK gives me goosebumps whenever he says Vande Mataram. I had to exercise great control from bursting into it along with him in theatre.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Priya Seth, the DoP, does a fantastic job with her camera. The movements are so well-planned that the entire thing seems flawless. From the burning oil wells to tanks in Kuwait City and on the sand dunes to the beautiful shot of the Indians speeding towards Jordan to the Katiyal home to the Refugee Camp, it’s all amazing!
ACTION: Manohar Verma does a fine job in this aspect. Airlift is a thriller without a lot of action. The invasion of Kuwait with tanks and soldiers all over the streets, buildings blowing up and Akshay’s sole action sequence are very well-shot and performed.
PERFORMANCES: Prakash Belawadi as the cranky George Kutty is so good that you want to thrash the living daylights out of him. His constant complaining gets on your nerves and you wish for him to be left behind. Inaamulhaq is a lot of things as the Iraqi Army Officer Major Khalaf Bin Zayd. He is hilarious, menacing and effective. He manages to portray the character’s joy of having been a part of an invasion force extremely well. Ajay Kumar as Katiyal’s employee (and of sorts right-hand man) Joseph does a good job. He brings out a lot of the character’s position well. The honest and hardworking nature of the character is very well portrayed. Ninad Kamat and Nassir Khan provide able assistance as Katiyal’s friends. Kumud Mishra is wonderful as JS (MEA) Sanjeev Kohli. From a bureaucrat who is somewhat confused to playing a huge role in the ultimate evacuation, Mishra surpasses his own performances from Rockstar and Badlapur. The prodding force behind Kohli’s new-found willingness to help is his father, played by Arun Bali, who puts across the point that a person who is homeless is rendered hopeless, referring to his own condition during Partition. Purab Kohli’s stunner of a performance is moving and powerful. The All-Weather Man of the film, Purab’s Ibrahim is perhaps one of the most powerful portrayals of the ground reality of the time in the film. Nimrat Kaur is amazing as Amrita Katiyal. She brings about a different sense of emotion in the film. She proves her might in a scene where she ticks Belawadi off. Akshay Kumar is the star of Airlift in every sense. His intensity as an actor comes to the fore in what is, by far, his best performance. He plays out a variety of roles in one: arrogant, narcissistic and straightforward businessman; doting father; loving husband; reluctant leader; messiah. A gritty and impressive performance from one of Bollywood’s finest actors.
Airlift is not jingoistic. Its patriotism is subtle. It doesn’t have the hero shouting out his love for his country. It is a beautifully-crafted tale of how a self-centered man takes charge in helping 170,000 people return to their homeland. A man who has never met these people. A man who doesn’t care about his roots anymore. Something within him wakes up and he sets about to accomplish his task. He goes about his work methodically, making as little noise about it as he can and pulls off a bit of unparalleled heroism.
Airlift…..Hindustaniyon ke liye Hindustan ki sabse kaamyaab koshish.
My rating for Airlift: 10/10