It is impossible not to like Airlift. For one, it is the kind of film that has not been made in Bollywood so far. Second: It sports some very good writing, with a lot of detailing and a healthy respect for the audience’s intelligence. And there are the performances.
Airlift is not an actioner, it is not a thriller. One could call it a crisis management and logistics drama. There is a task and it has to be done. The film is about how it is done. The task, of course, is to evacuate the 170,000 Indians stuck in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion in the 90’s.
The film engages you within the first few minutes when we see tanks in flames in a desert landscape. What makes the film stand out from previous such attempt at adventure drama attempted in Bollywood ( like say Deewar: Bringing Back Our Heroes) is how real things feel. Kuwait looks like Kuwait. The labour camp of Indians look like a labour camp, the inmates look like Indian workers and the war zone looks like a war zone.
Once things get into groove, and our hero Ranjit Katyal takes it on himself to make sure that all Indians are evacuated instead of thinking only about his family’s safety things move a little ploddingly, without any major surprise towards the inevitable climax. But in a way that is what gives the film a documentary feel. It might fall short in excitement and thrills but as a tradeoff it makes us connect with the various characters and we get sucked into the drama which feels very real. What lifts the film is the attention to detail that has gone into the writing. The historical context has been convincingly established. The smartest part of the writing is to handpick a few characters – Nair, George, Poonawalla, Ibrahm, the Iraqi Major, the supermarket owner, the joint secretary Kohli – and paint them with detailed strokes so we get involved with them as individuals and become a part of the adventure they are going through. The human face that the writer and director put on these characters is the single biggest achievement of the film. As a result, though the turn of events proceed in a predictable manner we never lose interest. There are many touches like the quirky, complaining George; the gradual change in the attitude of Jt. Secretary Kohli and the relationship between Ibrahim and the Kuwaiti girl which mark out Raja Menon as a fine purveyor of human relationship. I also like the little distraction of the Kabadi ship in which 500 people are sent away. It gives a good natural rhythm to the rescue effort. Then there was the bit about Tariq Aziz. I thought he was very intelligently used.
There are few gaps in staging of the evacuation effort when considered by absolute standards. Though lot of the action is fictionalized, they have stuck to the real number of 170,000 Indians evacuated. And that creates its own problems. No way can the camp that Ranjit Katyal and friends set up house or feed 170,000. Taking 85 people per bus, to transport 170,000 to Jordan would require 2000 buses. But the max we see is a caravan of 20-30 buses. But judging by Bollywood standards the production quality is way above what we have seen so far in similar efforts.
Apart from the writing and direction what impressed me equally was Akshay Kumar’s towering performance. This is a performance that no Khan could have delivered. He is dashing, he is convincing and he is effortless. It helps that his character has been written so well, with a lot of nuances. In the beginning he is a quasi-Kuwaiti, and a competent businessman. And the ‘manufacturing defect’ of his humanism coms to the fore in a crisis situation. It is also a relief that his concern for the fellow Indians is more a humanistic concern rather than born out of any kind of patriotism. As the difficulties mount, it is the winning habit of his businessman self which prods him not to give up. And he doesn’t achieve what he does by brute force, his ‘negotiation skills’ also come handy. His nonchalant heroism, athletic good looks and casual manners create an attractive personality which can give the Khans a run for their money in an appropriately mounted mainstream vehicle. (His salt-n-pepper beard sits so well on him.) I also like the fact that they took Nimrat Kaur instead of a regular heroine. The graph of her character is also quite believable and she portrays it competently.
To put things in perspective, it is a genre film and not a classic of any sort. But it is a genre we do not get to see in Bollywood. And it is a film which one can enjoy without making too many allowances for being a Bollywood film. For that, and for adding to the sparse repertoire of Bollywood a new genre of stories that can be told, we can thank Raja Menon and Akshay Kumar.
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