There is an innate calmness and simplicity about Airlift. No matter how big the scale or how herculean the task at hand is, Airlift goes about its business with an extraordinary easiness. There is no patriotic chest thumping (may be a little bit towards the end), no heart wrenching portrayal of war and its associated grief, no screeching or shouting. Most of the frames in Airlift are fittingly raw (sometimes eerily ‘still’) and heartwarmingly subtle. And, this is the biggest win for director Raja Krishna Menon and his team. They manage to tell an extraordinary story of courage and survival with an authentic, real-life ordinariness.
Inspired by true events during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which left lakhs of Indians stranded in the Gulf nation, Airlift mostly centers on the heroic deeds of an influential Indian businessman in Kuwait, Ranjeet Katyal (Akshay Kumar). Caught in the web of unfortunate circumstances, Katyal, originally a hard-bargaining, shrewd businessman, forgoes the opportunity to flee Kuwait with his wife (Nimrat Kaur) and daughter, and engineers and spearheads the near impossible evacuation of over a lakh Indians from the war-ravaged country. Aiding him in this mammoth task is an unassuming Indian bureaucrat Sanjeev Kohli (Kumud Mishra) who has to fight his own battles with political apathy and departmental non-cooperation.
Airlift boasts of authenticity right from the word go when we see Akshay Kumar, with distinct salt & pepper beard, undergoing massive change of fortunes within fifteen minutes of the film’s runtime. A slow-motion sequence where Akshay, a high-flying, politically well-connected businessman in Kuwait, cries in his car as he passes by Kuwait city and witnesses the rampage unleashed by the invading Iraqi soldiers, is truly terrifying and depicts the horrors of Gulf War with chilling finesse. The plight of ordinary Kuwaitis and mercilessness of Iraqi forces, who are visibly drunk on the name of Saddam Hussein, have been captured with sincerity and sensitivity – a trait very rare in most mainstream Hindi films.
Much of Airlift’s sincerity and authenticity is derived out of its director Raja Krishna Menon’s conviction in retelling a piece of history that most of us have forgotten. Menon is in full control of a possibly myriad subject and does not fall prey to the temptations of infusing unrealistic patriotism and Bollywood-ish heroism in the narrative. Apart from a small fist-fight scene towards the climax and a couple of songs, there’s hardly any scene in the film which you think that ‘couldn’t have really happened in real life’. Aiding Menon hugely in his endeavor is the pitch perfect cinematography by Priya Seth that almost transports you to the war-torn Kuwait of 1990.
But, any praise for Airlift would be grossly incomplete without giving due credit to its leading man. Akshay Kumar has rarely underplayed himself as beautifully as he does in Airlift and you almost forget that he is one of the biggest superstars of Hindi cinema. He makes the character of a tired-looking but hugely determined businessman his own and owns every frame that he is a part of. There is no bling, no rowdiness, rather this Akshay Kumar cries and does not look pretty, is not conscious of his greying beard and chest hair, he is simply Ranjeet Katyal in flesh and blood.
Nimrat Kaur plays her part with conviction and excels in a well-crafted monologue where she has to lash out at a suitably annoying Prakash Belawadi for questioning her husband’s efforts to safeguard stranded Indians. Purab Kohli and Inaamulhaq (of Filmistaan fame) do well in their respective roles of a stranded Indian trying to find his lost love in all the chaos and an Iraqi Major who speaks Hindi in an interesting accent. Kumud Mishra as the reluctant bureaucrat, who eventually helps Akshay’s character in his mission, is very believable. In fact, one of the high points of Airlift is how it subtly displays the day-to-day decision-making and functioning of Indian bureaucracy and political class. The way the establishment in Delhi reacts to the continued plea of stranded Indians in Kuwait is so slice-of-life that it hurts.
But, it is not as if Airlift is entirely flawless. The second half seems to meander a bit as it does not have the novelty and grip of the first half. Moreover, the climax of the film does not bring about the required urgency that you usually associate with war thrillers. Lakhs of people are evacuated way too easily in the end and it makes you wonder if the director should have focused a bit more on the hurdles that must have come up in the process. The possible challenges in the way of the big task are perhaps sidelined because the director invests a little too much in building smaller characters and their stories – many of which do not eventually leave a big impact.
But despite these minor flaws, Airlift is a very neat and balanced film that achieves the enormous task of being refreshingly simple yet effective. It never lets itself to be overwhelmed by the critical piece of history it deals with and retells a forgotten story with utmost honesty. Add to it a bravura performance by Akshay Kumar and you have a near-perfect and uplifting weekend deal.
Rating: **** (Excellent)