Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Starring: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur
During the presidency of Saddam Hussain, on August 2, 1990 the Iraqi Republican Guard overrsn Kuwait, forcing its government out of rule. This incident marked the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, which went on for almost six months and finally came to an end on February 28, 1991.
In the midst of this brutal war, which supposedly broke out as a consequence of financial tension between Iraq and the US, India pulled off the largest air evacuation operation in history. Around 170,000 Indians were airlifted by Air India with the help of the Indian Air Force, the Ministry of External Affairs, and Indian Embassies situated in Jordan and Kuwait. For almost 59 days, 488 Air India commercial flights flew into the war zone and brought the Indian expatriates in Kuwait back home.
Given the sensitive subject of the film, Akshay Kumar being chosen as the lead actor was completely unprecedented. He proved his credibility as an actor with his most recent work in the critically acclaimed movies Special 26 and Baby. Airlift follows the same path. He has starred in around 150 movies in his glorious career, but he has never been as good as he is in this movie. His portrayal of Ranjit Katyal, a Kuwait based Indian Businessman, is his best work to date. His character has a fluid and natural transformation -from being a profit hungry businessman to being a ray of hope to more than 150,000 people. Akshay Kumar is not the only good thing about this movie – it has several other nuances which take it out of the Bollywood Masala Movie paradigm.
Even though it approaches this serious and important story in a realistic manner, one should not forget that it is still a Bollywood movie. Hence, there are a couple unsuccessful attempts of inserting utterly insignificant songs in the middle of a tensed situation, which will disrupt your experience of watching this story unfold. Kuwait is going down, people are being killed and sodomized but Amrita Katyal, played by Nimrat Kaur, still manages to do make-up and wear fancy clothes. The tone is inconsistent throughout the length of the movie. One second there are brutal images of people getting shot and being dragged leaving a trail of blood everywhere and another second, Ranjit Katyal is singing and dancing to a song. Subsequently, Airlift fails to get the best of both worlds. It is neither as realistic as it was aiming to be nor is it a complete masala movie. This film falls short of being amazing as a result of such minute and definitely faulty decisions.
Except for Ranjit Katyal and Ibrahim Durrani, played by Purab Kohli, none of the other characters have a real arch. Although Amrita Katyal provides a good contrast to Ranjit who, within appropriate reasons, tries to make him leave the helpless people alone in the time of distress, it’s not enough. The character of George Kutty, played by Prakash Belawadi, is the worst aspect of this film. His constant bickering towards other people in the camp is simply annoying to watch after some time. This character is given more screen-time than he actually deserved (and he deserved no screen-time at all). From the almost 170,000 people stuck in Kuwait, the writers chose some of the most uninteresting people one could follow or even relate to in this rescue operation. Because of lack of care for the characters among the audience, one will not feel sympathetic towards them and this eventually loses any sense of tension and urgency in this life-or-death mission.
Another one of the drawbacks of this picture is that, it doesn’t do justice to the heroism of the real people who carried out this operation. Ranjit Katyal is not a real character. He is a fictional character, who is an amalgamation of the stories of a few people who played a major role in rescuing the people. He is mere eyes for the audience to see the how the operation was carried out and what all went down while it was under way. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, no person named Ranjit Katyal was involved in any phase of the operation and it was solely conducted by the officials of Ministry of External Affairs, the Indian Embassies and Air India. It would have been a much better adaptation if the story was told as it occurred, without bending it for creative freedom.
Airlift is a very ambitious film with some amazing looking long takes of mayhem, featuring the career best performance of Akshay Kumar. However, its inconsistent tone and flat characters make it fall short of being a great film. It is a big step towards the right direction and it is very humbling to see that the Hindi Film Industry is trying to tell good, human stories.