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High flying, adored

Director Raja Krishna Menon’s third film, Airlift crossed Rs 100 crore in the first week of its release. In an interview with The Hindu, he talks about the smaller heroes of the film, the need to redefine patriotism and why Akshay Kumar could set an example for other superstars.

Airlift is your third feature film after Bas Yun Hi (2003) and Barah Aana (2009). But people hardly know about those two. How difficult was it to make Airlift?

I’m a strong believer that if you have the ‘right’ script, people will back you in the industry. And you always know it. I had actually gone to Nikhil Advani (producer of Airlift ) with another script. It was about a business journalist who gets an offer to take charge of a company so that he can pull it down. He takes up the offer for money but his conscience comes in the way. Nikhil said he liked it but asked if I have anything else. I was not very happy with that script either. When I told him the Airlift idea, he got really excited. I made three pitches for Airlift : one to Nikhil, one to Vikram Malhotra (co-producer) and one to Akshay. Each of them lasted 15 minutes at the end of which all three said ‘yes’. You realise that some stories just resonate.

You’ve said in earlier interviews that Airlift is your reaction to the growing cynicism in our country

I was tired of the constant negativity around me in the last four-five years. We have become increasingly cynical as a nation. Cynicism is the key to any democracy but cynicism with a defeatist attitude is a problem. I wanted to use an untold chapter of history as a beacon of hope. If we have done it before, we can do it again. Like how we talk about the 1983 World Cup win in cricket or in the way we spoke about the Mumbai floods when the floods happened in Chennai recently.

Even if bringing back 1.7 lakh people in aircrafts is a logistical nightmare, how do you decide who is going to pay, tackle questions of getting permissions? You see the laidback, snail-pace of the government offices in the film. But you also see that if shaken and pushed, the bureaucracy that is represented by the Kumud Mishra character, things can be done. I’m trying to say that the system works if you want to make it work. The film is a metaphor for that.

The film is patriotic but not jingoistic

My idea of patriotism is not jingoistic. I’m the kind of guy who believes in a world without borders. I’m a follower of philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Patriotism is not bashing another country or defending someone. It is an intangible thing, a feeling of home, a sense of belonging to a land and its people, being a part of something bigger. I didn’t set out to make a patriotic film. It’s about an incredible human achievement which happens to be about Indians. I got messages from Canada, Austria, and France saying that they felt goosebumps in the scene when the India flag goes up. That kind of reaction makes the film bigger.

You have been able to extract a natural performance from a superstar when most are too conscious of their image.

Initially I didn’t know that Akshay would bring the kind of commitment he did in the film. The scene you refer to: it was the third day of shoot and Akshay and I were still getting to know each other. It happened naturally but I told him after the first shot that if he doesn’t want it we can reshoot. But to my surprise, he said, if I’m okay with it then he is okay with it as well. He brought a lot to the film, gave me a free-hand and brought in many small improvisations. This is an important performance because it’s going to lead stars to believe in and allow directors to make films their own way.

The rest of the film is made up of small indie faces and the look and texture is non-glossy and realistic

I’ve always liked working with indie actors, such as Kumud Mishra, Purab Kohli, who are stars to me. We put up a superb team made up of cinematographer Priya Seth, production designer Mustufa Stationwala, Udai Singh Pawar my associate director, editor Hemanti Sarkar, sound designer Debashish Mishra, writers Ritesh Shah and Suresh Nair, we don’t come with traditional Bollywood sensibilities. We all told each other that let’s not allow anyone to screw with this film. Let’s make a film we all would want to watch. The kind of detailing that’s gone into the film is scary. That’s the kind of filmmaking I like. It’s the same process in which I made Barah Aana , that had Naseeruddin Shah, Arjun Mathur and Vijay Raaz.

Each character in Airlift , irrespective of their screen time, had strong back-stories, complete with stories about who their families are, where they are coming from. Inamul Haq’s character of an Iraqi general had an entire history, he wrote a large part of it himself as well. For example, he has two children and that one child doesn’t like him. Even the extras had a one-two line story. There is a barber’s family in the refugee camp and a tailor’s family from a Kerala village. One of things I am very proud of is of the backgrounds in the film. They have their own problems. These details help you find the right sur of the film.

Some of the songs stuck out in that respect…

I like songs in films but yes, the songs were an issue in this case. Unfortunately in our film business, the only way to promote a film is largely songs. We kept it as limited as we could. We didn’t use them arbitrarily. The first song, Dil Cheez Tujhe De Di was had a lot of symbolism. There is another song of celebration in the camp. No one is reality is going to sing and dance in a refugee camp. But I tried to use it to show the euphoric height that it reaches when they learn that they can escape the country, before their hopes come crashing down. It could have taken 20 minutes to show that otherwise.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 12:08:23 AM |

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