The problem with most mainstream Hindi films is that they don’t care.
They don’t care about anything other than the egos of their stars, and the box office collections they generate. They don’t care about the story, aesthetics, performances, and, most importantly, the side actors, who are merely present in the film to make the heroes look heroic.
It is this lack of empathy — a kind of arrogance that usually comes with an inordinate amount of money at stake — that makes Hindi mainstream cinema mediocre, almost inhuman. So when Airlift, the latest Akshay Kumar release, accords a peripheral character, the star’s driver in the movie, significance and dignity, you are pleasantly surprised — a sign that this star vehicle may not be inane and heartless.
In one of the earlier scenes in the film, set in 1990’s Kuwait, Ranjit Katyal (Kumar), an influential businessman, gets inside his car, and his driver switches on the stereo that plays a Hindi film song, Ek Do Teen.
Ranjit, who considers himself more Kuwaiti than Indian, scoffs at the choice of song and tells his chauffeur to play a different track, presumably something non-Hindi.
A few hours later, in the same night, while Ranjit’s in the car with his wife, Amita (Nimrat Kaur), the driver tells them that he’s planning to visit India with his family, which includes his daughter who has never seen the country. Ranjit remains comically dismissive but Amita tells him to keep quiet. The film lets the driver have this moment.
Ranjit can’t care less about India and Indians, but a few days later, when his driver gets shot, on the first morning of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, something stirs in him. He sees the sorrows and anxieties of his own countrymen, especially ones less privileged than him, and begins doing his bit to set their lives right (even at the cost of complicating his own life).
Most commercial films would have used this plot point to launch into a narrative centered on the larger-than-life persona of its hero. But Airlift doesn’t. Because it knows what’s far more important in a story based on a real-life event: faceless, nameless ordinary people totaling to more than a lakh and a half, who are stranded between the cowardice and indifference of their adoptive and native countries.
But before Ranjit takes up the cause of thousands of strangers, he starts with his own people first. As he stands outside the house of his driver to inform his wife about her husband’s death, he can barely speak a word. And even after this scene, Ranjit, and, consequently, this film, doesn’t discard her, or her daughter; he brings them to his office, now a makeshift shelter for many Indians in Kuwait, and assures them of their safety.
When Ranjit goes to strike a deal with his the Major of Iraqi Republican Army, he agrees to pay for the safety of not three people (his family) but five (his driver’s wife and her daughter). Airlift doesn’t demarcate between human lives. It’s an important scene because mainstream Hindi films are not known for their moral fiber, definitely not in a way that’s this unassuming and simple.
Which is why Ranjit’s transformation, one that’s absolutely central to this film, doesn’t ring false. And it’s heartening that Raja Menon, Airlift’s director, believes it’s important that Ranjit first earns our trust — through small moments like these — before becoming a messiah for others.
For a film like Airlift, based on the lives of a few men who felt doing the right thing was vital, it is important that the film itself is humane, finding hope and humour in squalor. Kumar’s Ranjit is indeed a hero, but the film doesn’t necessarily see him as one, merely as someone who was able to find moral courage through a deeply personal loss.
Airlift also often sweats the small stuff, and does it remarkably well. The film is not just about Indians in Kuwait, but also Kuwaitis in Kuwait. When the Iraqi army attacks Kuwait in the night, we see a man, presumably a Kuwaiti, come out to the balcony of his house, dressed in pajamas, devastated by what’s being done to his country.
When Ranjit’s in his car driving through the city that has been destroyed by the Iraqi army, we see, in a fleeting shot, Kuwaitis being harassed in the streets — these scenes are not particularly essential to this story, but it was to that moment in time where Airlift derives inspiration from. When the Iraqi soldiers plunder Ranjit’s house, they are at first struck by its opulence.
There are desires aplenty in Airlift — some sincere, some malevolent — that keep bringing you closer to this film. Even the new, bigger makeshift shelter, a local school, doesn’t merely consist of refugees, but people who have their own stories: Ibrahim (Purab Kohli), a newly married man searching for his wife; Deepti (Lena), a house help protecting her Kuwaiti employer; George (Prakash Belawadi), a middle-aged man who’s so easily irritable that he’s almost endearing. Even the office of Ministry of External Affairs, characterized by tall stack of files and listless officers, is a character of its own.
So when a film like Airlift, which has so much going for it, flounders, it both upsets and irritates you. What’s even more frustrating, Airlift’s shortcoming is not different or courageous; it’s brought upon by something that’s plagued Hindi mainstream films for decades: shoehorning songs.
Airlift’s songs neither take the story forward nor build mood; in fact, they seem like checklists Menon had to tick to get his film funded. Although it’s to his credit that he keeps them short, their very presence, no matter for how brief a duration, is enough to yank you out of the story — a pity because Menon does know what makes his film affecting.
Even some of the characters who appear promising at first, such as George and a Ministry of External Affairs officer, Sanjiv Kohli (Kumud Mishra), turn out to be uneven sketches by the time the film gets over.
George, especially, is so over the top, so bizarrely callous (Belwade nails this role though), that by the time the film gets over it feels as if he was a scapegoat who was merely in the film to make Kumar’s Ranjit look noble; Mishra’s Sanjiv, on the other hand, is believable and real at almost all times — initially lazy and disinterested; later, conscientious — but for a scene in the film’s climax, which spurs him into action, that looks forced.
The major of Iraqi Republican Army, Khalaf Bin Zayd (Inaamulhaq), Airlift’s antagonist, doesn’t sound or look like Iraqi, and his unconvincing performance frequently diminishes the film’s impact.
These flaws do hurt Airlift, but it still remains a deeply humane film. It is, of course, a straightforward commercial film, which is not unfamiliar to silly compromises, but one that’s also not sheepish about the fact that it cares. Sometimes that’s enough.