Cast: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur, Feryna Wazheir
Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Rating: * * *
“Airlift”, Raja Krishna Menon’s third and biggest film, after ‘Bas Yun hi’ and ‘Barah Anah’ both of which did not have bankable names and failed at the Box-office, is based on real-life events during the 1990-91 Gulf War when V.P Singh held the mantle of PM and Inder Kumar Gujral, that of Minister of External Affairs. While the film assembles together incidents put together from real life it does a cop-out on the real heroes of that International incident.
Mathew M and Vedi both south Indians, were the two NRI’s whose unstinting efforts made the impossible possible-when India evacuated around 170,000 of its citizens stranded in war-torn Kuwait. Menon in an effort to get the audience into the theatres, prefers to morph their efforts into that of one alien sounding Punjabi a.k.a Ranjith Khatyal (played dutifully by Akshay Kumar who also co-produces) and makes the film about his reversal of fortune and sudden effusion of love for his motherland and her people when once he thought of himself as true blue Kuwaiti. As a dawning of wisdom effort it just doesn’t work because Akshay Kumar doesn’t have the chops to make that stick. He is sincere and earnest and goes about his job like he is unwillingly slumming it. The problem here is that the writing/script has been customized for Akshay and it shows up baldly in the narrative.
Of the 170000 Indians stranded in Kuwait, it’s more than clear that almost 70% ( if not more) of them were South Indians from Kerala and they were the more influential lot in the scheme of things. There was pressure on the Kerala government which in turn made strong efforts at the centre to push things forward. But Menon’s film makes little effort to understand the politics of that period or stay true to the geo-political situation of that time. His is a simplistic rendering that focuses on making his main lead look heroic while creating villains of the Indian government, Saddam, as well as one of the stranded refugees who he conveniently names as Mr George. Mr George becomes the whipping boy used to aggrandize Khatyal’s heroics.
Amrita (Nimrat Kaur), Ranjith’s wife, even gets a longish monologue tirade to put George in his place and anoint Ranjith as the next big super hero of that time. And frankly, Raja Menon cannot take recourse in creative license for that faux pas especially when he is using a true story as his raison d’être.
That Menon milks the unfurling of the flag and opening of gates to Amman for all the emotion he can get, cannot be misconstrued as worthy. The songs deflect from the story, especially the Punjabi number that is inserted in the scene of rejoicing when news of a ship, Tipu Sultan, laden with medicines from India, coming to Kuwait, reaches the refugees. The background score is noticeably minimal while the dialogues do lend tangible emotion to the dramatics from time to time.
But the drama is not exactly consistent. There’s this Iraqi general who appears to have more of a south Indian accent than an Iraqi one and he is in and out of the frame one too many times for believability to stick. The lack of depth in the narration is difficult to overlook. Also there’s very little tension so the contrived thrills are barely effective. Akshay Kumar has come a long way as an actor. He tries his best to look the part but he doesn’t quite get the understated heroism right. He is a little too self-aware and his star status appears to be hovering around him whilst in the midst of performance. Nimrat Kaur has a clearly defined role and lends credibility and punch to her part. There’s no doubt that much more could have been done with this story. While gritty and engaging, this is at best a feeble attempt to tell a story about contemporary heroics.