“Airlift”… A fine mix of Western understatement and Indian heart

Posted on January 24, 2016


Spoilers ahead…

In August 1990, when Iraqi forces took over Kuwait, Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar) discovered that he had to get out with his wife Amrita (a lipstick-happy Nimrat Kaur) and little daughter. But instead of buying three one-way tickets – a matter of loose change for this business tycoon; he’d just have to sell, oh, the second hand of the thick gold watch on his wrist – he chose to stick around and help the other Indians similarly stranded, some 1,70,000 of them. What made this man an unlikely messiah? Maybe it has something to do with the moment Ranjit saw his driver gunned down in front of him. Maybe it’s about the long, slow drive past a series of horrors – he just cannot stop crying. Maybe it’s the realisation that the dinar he worshipped now possesses “mitti ka value.” Maybe it’s that he did not know the people who worked under him, and now that these anonymous faces have names he knows, he cannot just stand by and do nothing. Maybe it’s the knowledge that, with his money and his cutthroat negotiating skills, he’s the only one around who can do anything. (The dinner-time scene where he bluffs the puffed-up Iraqi officer, played by Inaamulhaq, is a cracker.) Or maybe it’s, as Ranjit says, “Chot lagti hai to aadmi  ‘maa maa’ hi chillaata hai sabse pehle.” He’d begun to think of himself as Kuwaiti. Now, he sees Raj Kapoor was right: phir bhi dil hai Hindustani.

Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift is a remarkable blend of two styles of moviemaking. If the refusal to spoon-feed us a single answer for Ranjit’s transformation is the sign of a certain type of cerebral thriller, there’s also that fantastic line of dialogue that Kader Khan would have been proud to put his name on – inside the cool Hollywoodian exterior throbs a Bollywoodian heart. The film keeps serving up typical situations, the kind we’d find in our masala movies – and what is the central story if not “hero saves the day”? – but there’s always something a little… atypical.

There’s an early song, reminiscent of Khaled’s Didi. At first, it’s just an item song. Shapely dancers baring acres of creamy flesh. Well-heeled patrons clutching glasses of wine. A band of musicians with a lead singer who kicks off the song, until the hero sashays in and begins to sing himself. It appears that Bollywood has set up shop – it’s business as usual. Except that it’s not. Menon keeps cutting away to the lead singer who’s at first amused that Ranjit has taken over, but gradually he sits down with a sigh – another victim of Ranjit’s takeover tendencies. And we recall the snatch of conversation just before the song, about a business deal in which Ranjit screwed over a friend. Ranjit stays in character through the song as well. Now he’s screwing the singer over.

Time and again, we get masala-movie situations that simmer with less spice. The scene where Ranjit goes to inform his driver’s wife that her husband is no more – there are no wails; there aren’t even any words. The scene where the sympathetic Indian government official (the excellent Kumud Mishra; he looks such a part of the system that you suspect he even learnt his ABCs from dusty files) addresses civil aviation pilots who refuse to fly into a war zone (to bring those Indians back home) – you expect rousing oratory, a stirring call to action; you get, instead, a short speech urging them to introspect and do what they think is right.

And the action scene? You brace yourself for choreographed stunt-work, a paisa-vasool sop for fans who know Akshay Kumar as Rowdy Rathore; but there’s just some scrambling with sand and stones, the way we’d fight if we summoned up the guts, and the bad guys are dismissed not by the leading man but the extras, whose sheer numbers suggest a slightly different story, that it’s not just the hero who saves the day. Airlift may revolve around the actions of Ranjit Katyal (and the star power of Akshay Kumar, who gives a controlled, charismatic performance), but it makes space for many smaller heroes: that Indian government official; the supermarket owner who looks after feeding the Indians corralled into a camp; the Muslim who saves a Kuwaiti widow; those pilots. As the end credits inform us, Ranjit himself is a composite of two real-life heroes, men who did super things but were not exactly supermen.

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Menon is a first-rate filmmaker. I keep thinking of a crane shot that goes down-up instead of the more conventional up-down. (The terrific cinematography is by Priya Seth.) The latter takes us from the general to the specific – it’s the classic establishing shot. But here, we see the actions of a few, and when the camera goes up, we see the multitudes that lie beyond. The shot is pure narrative – that’s a story being told there. I don’t recall much of Menon’s earlier film Barah Aana, but I looked back at my review and here’s what I found: tightly narrated… Another film would have [tickled] our most subversive wish-fulfillment fantasies… Menon [lets] his leads breathe… opting for character over contrivance, detail over plot dynamics… wryly observed… doesn’t bludgeon us with its thesis points…

All of which applies, to some degree, to Airlift as well. With just a few well-chosen faces (Purab Kohli, Prakash Belawadi) and a few sharp brush strokes, Menon helps us know the individuals in this mass of Indians. And with a few well-chosen artefacts, he brings alive an era, most amusingly in the form of a young Sachin Tendulkar, who gets this assessment from a disgruntled Indian in Amman: “Kisi ko bhi Indian team mein daal dete hain.” Ek do teen, too, makes an appearance. Ranjit is irked when his driver listens to the chartbuster, but later, he discovers Iraqi soldiers jumping with glee when the song begins to play. It’s a live demo of India’s soft power long before liberalisation, long before anyone thought to yoke together the terms “India” and “soft power.” Somewhere, Manoj Kumar is jotting down notes for a new movie: Purab Aur Middle East.

If there’s a niggle, it’s that the film doesn’t quite live up to its marketing. Or its name, for that matter. The scenes with planes add up to a mere couple of minutes – Biding Time Till The Airlift might have made a better title. Wiki up “1990 airlift of Indians from Kuwait” and you’ll find this remarkable story, of the largest civilian evacuation in history: “A total of 170,000 people were evacuated to Mumbai – a distance of 4,117 km, by operating 488 flights in association with Indian Airlines, from 13 August to 11 October 1990 – lasting 59 days.” How thrilling that sounds. It’s understandable, even inevitable, that this complex chain of events is smoothed down into a mainstream-friendly narrative, but the resulting film has neither the nail-biting tension of the similarly themed Argo nor the historical heft of Schindler’s List, which is evoked not only in the Schindler-like capitalist who discovers selflessness, but also in the mousy, manager who makes a list of people who need to be saved (the equivalent of the Ben Kingsley character) and the enemy that the hero is forced to be friends with (the Ralph Fiennes character). Other reminders: scenes of Kuwaitis being rounded up and massacred by Iraqis, like Jews under the Nazis; and the Indian camp, an approximation of a Jewish ghetto.

But Schindler’s List carried a charge of danger. Will he get caught? That is never a question in Airlift, which, after the urgent initial portions, begins to plod towards a wholly expected ending. Even the scenes with the Kuwaiti widow, who’s described as a “time bomb,” don’t really detonate. But none of this takes away from the fact that this is a fine film, a fine example of how it’s possible to incorporate Western understatement into a very Indian movie, and, more importantly, a fine model for how our aging heroes can continue playing the action hero. At least until a time we begin to wonder if the film should really be called… Facelift.


  • Chot lagti hai to aadmi  ‘maa maa’ hi chillaata hai sabse pehle = When we’re hurt, we cry for our mother.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi