Fifteen minutes into Airlift, in a very simple, quiet, slow motion sequence, a defeated looking, bearded Indian man drives past the burning city of Kuwait.
Young Iraqi army men, barely in their teens, are out on the streets, guns in their hands, with the power of Saddam Hussein’s terror in their walk. The torturous sights of a city under siege continue to be seen in the rear view mirror of the car. One of the first thoughts you have as a viewer is that Camerawoman Priya Seth’s story-centric cinematography is deeply compelling in Airlift.
Just the night before, the Indian chauffeur was driving a man along with his wife to a party. The man is now huddled at the steering wheel, sobbing. His name is Ranjit Katyal.
By now, you have forgotten he is Akshay Kumar, the action hero who was last seen performing a rocking bhangra, with a vibrant turban on his head, in Singh is Bling. Kumar is an ordinary looking Katyal, and this itself is a huge achievement for someone of his star stature, thanks primarily to the smoothest direction by Raja Krishna Menon.
There is no unnecessary dramatic build up of any kind of commercial heroism, despite a few seconds of Kumar breaking into both Bollywood dance steps as well as a tiny fight sequence. It’s not just about the way Kumar performs and keeps it subtle and silent. It’s also about the way Menon reveals his character without going overboard. The very tone of Airlift is devoid of any drama, right till the last frame. The music supports the subtext, the camera is unobtrusive and the film simply lets the story flow. Right into your heart and your conscience.
This is Menon’s third film after Bas Yun hi (2003) and Barah Aana (2009). It is also one of the finest films based on a real event, after Shimit Amin’s Chak De India. If the Indian flag in Chak De India arouses tearful emotions of joy, pride and redemption, the same flag seen in Jordan, at a certain point in Airlift, is bound to bring a similar lump to the throat.
And it’s not just the big moments that are poignant. It’s a given that the main story based on the historic incident of rescue evacuation of Indians from Kuwait during Hussein’s attack in 1990, has all the makings of the most inspiring piece of cinema. But the script’s charm lies in the smaller stories within the larger picture.
Small subplots like that of Ibrahim (Purab Kohli) looking for a missing newly wedded wife, is made more touching by simple quiet exchanges with Katyal. Another powerful thread pertaining to the Indian political machine and one bureaucrat’s vital role and its treatment, brings in the right kind of realism to the story. Kumud Misra chews this part with the ease of a hungry dog and meaty bone. Other minor characters play the voice of a common man looking out for their selfish needs in moments of crisis. One such person, George, is played brilliantly by Prakash Belawadi. Inaamulhuq plays the loathful Iraqi villain with conviction and relish, his slim frame notwithstanding.
Nimrat Kaur, who won many hearts in The Lunchbox, is more of a distraction in her glamorous look and is the weakest link in the film despite having a long speech moment.
Ultimately, it’s the heartwarming story of achieving the impossible and larger human conscience in Airlift that rules. What do you do when, in the words of Katyal, “Saddam hamare ghar ghus aaya hai?"
Well, as two real life heroes, Matthew and Vedi did -- you make calls and more calls for days to the passive Delhi Government office, patiently negotiate with frightful people like Iraqi generals and bravely travel to Baghdad. You use your mind as the only weapon and most importantly, your conscience. Then, all it takes are around 500 airlines, a few good men in the ministry to practically airlift around 1, 70,000 Indians from Kuwait to Mumbai.
Kudos to Menon for giving us Akshay Kumar’s Chak De India.