You probably remember the moment you first heard of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, of Saddam Hussein, and of the incident that sparked off the Gulf War. Airlift, written and directed by Raja Menon, takes us back to that time in history, but we see it through the eyes of a wealthy Indian businessman living in Kuwait. Based on the largely forgotten real-life incident that involved the evacuation of 1,70,000 Indians stuck in Kuwait, Airlift is the inspiring story of an ordinary man who turns into a hero when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
We’re told the film’s protagonist, Ranjit Katiyal, played by Akshay Kumar, is based on two men who helped pull off the largest civil evacuation ever. It took 488 Air India and Indian Airlines flights more than 59 days to get every one of those Indians home. The scale of this operation is overwhelming, and Airlift keeps it real – well, as real as it can get in an Akshay Kumar film with songs thrown in and the obligatory hand-to-hand fight sequence. The cinematography is gritty and there’s a sense of tension conveyed in the scenes where the Iraqi soldiers go on a rampage, tearing Kuwait and its people apart. Menon and his writers fashion a taut thriller, but post-intermission the screenplay drags, and there’s an urgency that’s missing in the climax – something that Argo, with a similar theme, successfully achieved.
When the film begins on August 1, 1990, a day before Iraq’s invasion, we discover that Katiyal is a hard-nosed businessman who thinks of himself as more of a Kuwaiti than an Indian. As all hell breaks loose, he wants to leave for London with his wife (Nimrat Kaur) and young daughter. But when his loyal driver is shot dead in front of his eyes, and he finds all his employees looking towards him for answers, Katiyal discovers a heroic and humane side to him that he never knew he had. Soon all the Indians stranded in Kuwait see him as a messiah and Katiyal becomes determined to deposit them all safely to India.
Airlift turns the real-life story into a one-man mission, but we do see other players. There’s the committed bureaucrat in Delhi (Kumud Mishra), who works tirelessly, sifting through government procedures and pleading with ministers to get things going. Purab Kohli evokes your empathy, playing a young worker looking for his lost love amidst the chaos, while Prakash Belawadi is appropriately annoying as the cantankerous refugee who can’t stop grumbling. Filmistan’s Inaamulhaq brings a creepy, menacing presence to the character of the oily Iraqi general who speaks Hindi with a grating accent.
For the most part, the film feels authentic, and Nimrat Kaur blends right in. Just a wee bit awkward in the early scenes, she comes into her own by the time she must deliver a scathing monologue during a crisis of faith over her husband’s actions. But Airlift, expectedly, rests on Akshay Kumar’s shoulders, and he underplays the heroism beautifully, bringing quiet but steely resolve to the character, even delivering the stray note of humor almost conversationally. There’s almost none of his starry baggage in this performance, which easily counts amongst his best.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Airlift. The occasional speed bumps aside, there are many moments that soar. Raja Menon turns an important story into a compelling film. Don’t miss it.