Airlift: As swift as a Hollywood 'rescue thriller'

For a long time, Hindi cinema was happy with the Indian within India — living in its villages and cities. Then it started taking the hero-heroine abroad in films that felt like paid holidays for shooting song sequences. Next, Bollywood began focusing on the Indian living abroad, the NRI whose heart and mind seemed to reside back in the motherland. Now, it has moved another step ahead. Ee have Indians caught bang in the middle of geo-political crises: from tracking the Taliban in Afghanistan in Kabul Express to being caught in the civil war-torn Syria in Phantom. Airlift is also about Indians caught in a conflict zone, only that it is based on true incident. It is about the evacuation of 1,70,000 Indian expatriates stuck in Kuwait after its invasion by Iraq in 1990. Believed to be the largest civil evacuation ever, it was conducted over 59 days involving 488 Air India/Indian Airlines flights.

Filmmaker Raja Krishna Menon fashions a taut, engaging feature film out of an incident which would, on paper, appear to be more worthy of a documentary. It begins at the very beginning, taking us straight to that crucial day in Kuwait—August 1, 1990. We get a quick introduction to Ranjit Katyal (Akshay), a fictional character inspired by two individuals in Kuwait who mapped out the evacuation at that end. He runs a construction business, considers himself a Kuwaiti than an Indian, strongly believes in profiteering and is fast turning a stranger for wife Amrita (Nimrat). A quick cut to the bombing of Al Abdali labour camp, a voiceover explaining the history of tension between Iraq and Kuwait and its escalation to war and the stage is set. In its narrative swiftness, Airlift is structured like one of those Hollywood “rescue thrillers”. It comes to the point fast, with the background conversations establishing the context, be it the oil wars, the American involvement or the reference to a “new boy” in the Indian cricket team called Sachin Tendulkar.

Director:Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur, Purab Kohli, Kumud Mishra, Prakash Belawade
Run-time:125 minutes

The characters, their relationships, interactions and transformations hold your attention, especially that of Ranjit and his relationship with Amrita. From confidence to insecurity and vulnerability, from a hardcore businessman to a do-gooder who willingly turns his office into a refugee camp—it doesn’t take a lot of screen time for the shift to happen but Akshay, sporting his salt-n-pepper beard, gives the role all the gravitas he has and turns things believable. Nimrat is her usual easy presence on camera and turns all fiery with assurance when a scene makes such histrionic demands of her. With their relationship dynamics—rediscovering oneself and each other in crisis-the two make a most interesting on-screen couple. There is a warmth with which the director delineates the lazy, red-tapism of Indian bureaucracy and Kumud Mishra as halting, soft-spoken and slow JS Sanjeev Kohli is endearing.

There are bits which do get too far-fetched, the war scenes, those tanks moving in the desert look tawdrily done and the Iraqi major played by Inaamulhaq with a patently fake accent feels like a typical caricaturised villain of Hindi cinema than for real. Also, after keeping the emotions and melodrama in tight control Menon lets go towards the end specially with the overt patriotic posturing. Is it easy to shirk off your identity? What is home ultimately? Can you feel secure anywhere else other than your own country? Valid questions perhaps that come riding on jingoism, all wrapped up in the tricolour. Airlift would have been a better film without this nationalistic bluster but has a bigger potential at the box office now with the Republic Day just round the corner.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 2:46:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/Airlift-As-swift-as-a-Hollywood-rescue-thriller/article14015775.ece

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