If there’s one thing that can be said about Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, it is that the film is a topical one.
Despite being based on a true historical occurrence from a quarter century ago, it is rich with messages for the world of today. Refugee crises, tensions in the Middle-East rising from vested commercial interests, India’s complex bureaucratic machinery; the plight of the migrant labour class in the ‘Gulf’; all these issues are referenced in the course of this screen depiction of one of the largest human evacuations in history.
Yet, perhaps the most important draw from this heavily flawed film, is our changing perception of patriotism; for this seems to have become one of the most contentious issues of our time. Gone are the days when it was fashionable to lament over India’s shortcomings in social gatherings. Now seems to be the age of wearing one’s patriotism on one’s sleeve.
We live in a world where not standing during the national anthem before a film is considered an act worthy of ostracism. Our universities and autonomous higher education institutes across sectors, where some of the brightest minds of today attempt to harness their skills for a better tomorrow, are suddenly deemed hotbeds of anti-national activity. Expressing dissatisfaction at the state of affairs today is akin to showing an interest in Pakistani citizenship.
But then, jingoism has always been a part of our DNA. After all, we’re a nation that wouldn’t mind catching snatches of J P Dutta’s Border on Republic Day even today. This is where Airlift, in its constant battle between realism and escapism, reminds us of why we truly are a nation to be proud of.
All the bickering and noise in the current politically charged atmosphere in the country masks how we rally together, cutting across divisions, for the silliest of reasons. Nothing like a good scandalous controversy or a World Cup win over our nuclear-ready neighbours to unite us in spewing opinion and emotion.
And when it comes to the serious stuff, when we need to help our own in times of need, India, irrespective of the government in power, has always tried to step up and do what is needed. Be it in the evacuation of 170,000 Indians from Kuwait in 1990, the event on which Airlift is based, or the evacuation of thousands from Yemen in 2015, the nation has stood by its people.
Airlift as a film has many shortcomings. It may be well-acted and well-shot, but the writing is, at best, average. The reasons shown for the protagonist Ranjit Katiyal’s Oskar Schindler-esque change of heart are markedly forced, the narrative sequence of events occurring in the course of the operation is poorly charted out, and the film doesn’t ever manage to capture the true scale of what it must have been like, to evacuate 170,000 people.
Akshay Kumar, the first of the 90s superstars to accept and play his age, is in terrific form in the film. But it is always *his* film. The film was never meant to be about the operation at all, but about how *his* character goes through great lengths to get it done. That is a narrative choice, of course. But that choice of perspective just leads to the film never acquiring the heft of being about a massive humanitarian crisis. It is also always tiptoeing between the boundaries of docudrama and melodrama, so conscious of overstepping either line, that it ends up being one-note almost all through.
It is only in the climax of the film, after showing restraint nearly all the way, that it breaks free and cops out for the clap-trap. International borders are thrown open, a gigantic tricolour is hoisted in a foreign land, and scores of Indians, on and off the screen, break out in applause.
That moment is a classic case of why we’re truly proud to be Indian; it’s because nowhere in the world can so many different types of people co-exist in relative peace. Voices on both sides of the political debate, in their own unique ways, fight hard: and it’s this battle that has helped keep the balance thus far.
We’re a lazy, shrewd bunch. But we have heart, and the only wish of the ordinary, mortal, apolitical Indian is to keep the peace and do well for the self. And that tiny tear we shed as Airlift draws to a close, with India having saved Indians, is a far greater sign of patriotism than standing for a million national anthems.