More than one and a half lakh Indians get stranded in a country which is invaded by dictator. Who – do you think – would take the lead to rescue them?
1. Air India / Indian Airlines
2. Minister of External Affairs
3. Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs
4. A Punjabi businessman
Facts of the matter be damned, when a Katyal played by no less than a Bhatia saunters into the stage with a Kaur in tow, I don’t think any part of the Indian government machinery really stands a chance.
After the release of Airlift, many individuals have come forward to claim that the Indian government and its national carrier played a stellar role in the evacuation of the Indians stranded in Kuwait during Iraq’s invasion. But frankly, when they show Air India pilots reluctant to undertake the evacuation mission or a craven minister in a minority government, they hit home so well that you tend not to dig into the facts of the case.
The film ends with a tribute to two South Indian (most likely, Malayali) gentlemen who were largely responsible for the Indians leaving Kuwait safe and sound via Jordan. The rationale for changing the Malayalis to Punjabi was rather obvious. I could not imagine Akshay Kumar pulling off a Mallu accent or Mohanlal pulling in a capacity crowd outside of Kerala (and maybe, Gelf)!
[This was somewhat reminiscent of No One Killed Jessica, where the Barkha Dutt character was depicted ‘stinging’ the Shayan Munshi character while it was Tehelka magazine which had done it IRL. Tehelka got a mention for ‘Breakthrough Journalism’ in the end.]
Many have declared Airlift to be the finest performance in Akshay Kumar’s career. While that is debatable (and Special 26 comes to mind as a contender), he does put up a splendid performance as Ranjit Katyal – a wheeling dealing businessman who becomes a messiah almost by accident. The devil-may-care attitude at the beginning, his change of heart when he sees his driver getting shot and his reluctant shepherding of the Indian masses have been most realistically portrayed. Nimrat Kaur, on the other hand, has precious little to do except for one scene (which she does extremely well).
Apart from the performances, what made Airlift really good is the slow transition it depicted in all the characters. The transition of Nimrat Kaur from the exasperated wife to the understated supporter was very well-written (apart from being well-performed). The transformation of a Foreign Ministry official from a foot-dragging minion to crusader for the 'refugees' is done with a lovely balance of realism and emotion.
One of the most difficult things – I think – in Hindi cinema is to make a rousing film with a patriotic message without degenerating into jingoism. And this, Airlift does exceedingly well. The diversity of India is brought out beautifully, without going over the top. The motivations of the people, their unconscious selfishness, their self-conscious beliefs are all seamlessly woven into the script.
And the high point of the film – for me – was done superbly despite being expected. At Jordan’s Amman airport, the fleeing Indians are met with typical bureaucratic apathy and absolutely no signpost for them to reach out to. All the nations had put up flags to guide their citizens, except for India. And just then, the Air India official receives a call from New Delhi and wheels start turning. As Akshay Kumar – who often claimed to be Kuwaiti early in the film – looks up, we see a nondescript airport official hoisting the Indian flag and with its unfurling, we get the climax we came for. Many of us stand during national anthems, many of us don’t, some of us are made to… but the honest truth is that when you see the three colours forming a perfect arc as someone straightens the flagpole and fixes it to the ground, you have to really hate your country to not have a lump in your throat.
And Airlift is a good place to test that out.
As a footnote, I would like to add a Facebook post from a friend. Her father, then working for Air India, was part of the team stationed in Amman for nearly three months to evacuate the Indians. Going off to a war zone for three months at three days' notice... wonder if there is a film in that story?