Films about genuinely unsung heroes are a fine thing, and Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift is a sincere effort to celebrate an insanely daunting task. In 1990, during the Persian Gulf War, over 170,000 Indians were stranded in Kuwait when it was attacked by Iraq, and a few local businessmen and Indian diplomats took on the valiant, significantly uphill task of bringing those people home. The number itself is staggering — necessitating nearly 500 aeroplanes full of people — and Airlift, for the most part, delivers this action with efficiency and a relative lack of exaggerated drama.
The situation itself is patently absurd, with armoured tanks rolling onto city streets in Kuwait one loud night, and Menon does well to keep things reined in more than most Bollywood filmmakers would. Akshay Kumar plays a profit-hungry businessman, a man who disapproves of Hindi film music and would rather listen to Arabic tunes, but the nightmare of living in a war-torn foreign city awakens his patriotic and humane side, which leads to what remains the largest civil evacuation of all-time.
The film is well shot, with cinematographer Priya Seth achieving the right mix of impressive aerial shots and cramped handheld bits, and reasonably well-textured with credible Middle Eastern detailing. There are hiccups — like Kumar singing a Hindi song moments after refusing to listen to Hindi songs — and the songs do indeed get in the way every single time they come on, but things are smoothened over by the solid character artists populating this film, from the surprisingly effective Purab Kohli to the ever-excellent Kumud Mishra to the businessmen who play Kumar’s buddies to the fascinatingly helpless Feryna Wazheir, who plays a Kuwaiti woman hoping to make her escape with the Indians.
It isn’t all on the up and up, though: Prakash Belawadi, who seems to be in every film now post his star turn in Talvar, plays an infuriatingly pigheaded and badly written character. Meanwhile Nimrat Kaur, who plays Kumar’s wife, seems challenged by the brief of speaking softly with a strain of Punjabi, like a woman from a Pakistani play, while constantly wearing make-up regardless of how harrowed her character is, like a woman from an Indian television show. This marriage of cross-border soap opera convention doesn’t help Kaur, who appears mostly silly, and during her one big moment, a scathing speech, her accent sadly falls away.
Still, Airlift is compelling, thanks largely to a sterling performance from Kumar — who is both suitably weary and suitably level-headed for the part — enough to anchor the proceedings. The actor is always fine when reined in, and Menon plays to his strengths and Kumar only snaps once, almost reflexively, into Bollywood hero mode, but he is mostly calm and grown-up and holding on. The problem with Airlift, however, cinematically speaking, is that its protagonist, while messianic, might be reined in too far: there is not much Kumar has to do besides have faith and talk to people; there is no audacious plan, there is no stroke of genius — it’s all just hope and humanity.
That sounds noble enough, but it makes things less interesting cinematically — compared, say, to the madly elaborate schemes carried out in Ben Affleck’s Argo, a masterful evacuation film Airlift will invariably (and unfortunately) be compared with. Menon’s is a sweet film, but tame enough to be nicknamed ‘Argo Hug Yourself.’
I, for one, can’t help wishing the character created for Kumar had more up his sleeves. The actor positively shines during a moment where he, interrupted mid-tandoori chicken, shows off his poker face and bluffs strikingly well, and the way he coaxes his beaten adversary to eat another bite is priceless. Yet that’s the only part where he’s being clever. Everything else is sincerity and fortitude, and while well-meaning, sticking merely to that is what keeps this film from being genuinely memorable.
This, you might think, is a reckless demand: why would I ask for drama to be conjured up when this clearly stands as an inspirational story of hope? Well, because it’s not as if the film is against taking cinematic liberties, and the one it confesses to is quite tell-tale: Airlift ends by informing us that there were two admirable Indian expatriates — a Mr Matthews and a Mr Vedi — who masterminded the dramatic rescue operation, and that both of them were amalgamated into Kumar’s character. Even when toasting a true story, say our movies, a superstar is worth more than a real hero.
Rating: 3 stars
First published Rediff, January 22, 2015