As Akshay Kumar’s voice over informed us in the end that this was the biggest human evac operation ever to be carried out, the audience in the cinema hall broke out in affectious applause, whistled, and hooted. And then, the credits began rolling. And no one, I mean, not a soul, moved from their seats. The houseful cinema hall did not stir. And no one moved because everyone was moved deeply.
And that is the impact director Raja Krishnan Menon’s “Airlift” has on you. Loosely based on the true story of Indians quagmired in Kuwait after Saddam Hussain’s Iraqi army invaded the oil-rich city, the movie opens in August 1, 1990. Ranjit Katiyal (Akshay Kumar) is a quasi-Kuwaiti businessman, arrogant, used to having his way, disdainful and cynical of anything Indian. When his driver, Nair, plays the late 80s Laxmikant-Pyarelal raucous hit, “Ek do teen,” Ranjit doesn’t hide his displeasure. (In this case, even I’d have been tempted to confiscate Nair’s acidic music collection.) Ranjit has his business and his family – wife Amrita (Nimrat Kaur) and daughter Simu, and that’s his world. In a frightening turn of events, the Iraqi army rolls into Kuwait and a superbly sequenced event of scenes informs you how they flatten the prosperous city.
Ranjit’s aim then, is to ensure his business and money are secure, and send his family to London until things return back to normal. In a sliver of a turn of events, he discovers the frustraneous truth about Kuwaiti currency, even as he witnesses a murder that begins his transfiguration. From here on, Ranjit’s primary concern and focus become his employees, and as the story and his realization progress, all the Indians marooned amidst the increasingly fraught situation in the Iraqi-held city. Director Menon, who also co-wrote this film with Suresh Nair, Rahul Nangia, and Ritesh Shah, takes you into the horrifying world of refugees. And to me, this is the highlight of the movie, and the timing is impeccable, even as the international debate on refugees and how countries ought to respond to them, rages. What does it mean to lose everything that you’ve worked for, all your life savings, your shelter, your dignity, your safety and find yourselves at the mercy of no one but a roulette of fate? How do you survive even a day? What do you hope for when there’s only hopelessness?
Ranjit doesn’t know either, and thus begins his prowesome effort of evacuating all Indians. This involves his family, the Indian government and bureaucrats, locals, friends, an Iraqi brass hat, Major Khalaf bin Zayd (Inaamulhaq), the Iraqi foreign minister, and a lot of gumption. Raja Menon puts together an ensemble cast to give depth and emotional clarity to the story and the crowd, and full marks to casting director Vicky Sidana. Every actor he’s chosen matches their character to a roller coaster of troubles and personal baggage. Purab Kohli is absolutely superb as Ibrahim Durrani. His acting exudes strength and sure-footedness, even as he nicely hides the turmoil his character’s facing. Feryna Wazheir as Tasneem is a class act, not speaking a word, but her eyes conveying fear and projecting the shadow of death she and her baby are up against. There’s Prakash Belawadi as George Kutty, who questions and criticizes everything that Ranjit does and thus creates a scene that is Nimrat Kaur’s moment of acting (and character) pride in the movie.
As the wife who lives a posh life and feels distant from her husband, Nimrat Kaur glides in with seemingly little to do. But as her puzzlement about her husband’s actions turns to realization, and she scalds Belawadi’s character with a spirited defense of her husband, she comes into fine form. There’s a scene where the refugee crowd is celebrating and her eyes light up with pride for Ranjit – that’s truly touching.
“Airlift” also has a nuanced performance by Kumud Mishra, who plays SanjivKohli, the joint secretary who unwillingly gets dragged into Ranjit’s plans, and then begins to roll the wheels of politics in Delhi. Mishra’s opening is simply brilliant as he picks up Ranjit’s call for the first time. It’s lunch time, and he’s not interested – note how he holds the phone, the ear piece not even up to his ear, his body language exuding an intense aura of lackadaisicalness. And later, when he speaks to the minister or addresses the Air india pilots, he’s given very little time to deliver his acting punches, but he lands them gently, effectively, and knocks you out.
If ever there was a movie to see how far and nicely Akshay Kumar has traversed the acting space, “Airlift” is it. There’s none of the assured heroics or killer fight moves here, but he’s the most assured and most reassuring light in this project. Akshay Kumar is subtle, underplayed, and understatedly brilliant. The scene where Nimrat lashes out at Belawadi, he doesn’t say a thing. He actually moves to stop her, but then checks himself, and as he hears her defense of him, his eyes and expressions convey a sense of gratefulness, love, and pride. When he’s desperate, on the phone to Delhi, he’s a picture of despair and tension. And I loved the subservient body language Kumar shows when he’s in the presence of the Iraqi foreign minister. It’s not overdone, it’s not underplayed, it’s perfect. It’s how you and I would sit in the presence of an important personality.
The production design by Mustafa Stationwala is frighteningly real, almost making you smell the pallor of death and destruction all around. Ditto for Priya Seth’s effective cinematography. And if I were to segue to the music department, it would be with the question, “What’s the height of laziness?” And Ankit Tiwari answers it with “Dil Cheez Tujhe Didi”. Honestly, did he rummage his uncle’s cassette collection to give us Khaled’s 1992 Algerian “Didi”? Is that all the imagination that composers have now? I half expected to hear another “Macarena” version down the line. It’s clear that Tiwari doesn’t have the flairlift as say, a Bappi Lahiri, who did “Chori chori yun jab ho aankhen chaar” in “Paap Ki Duniya”. That was Bangles’ super catchy “Walk like an Egyptian”, but still good fun. Or was it because of Kishore Kumar, whose majestic presence could bring alive the deadest of musical dodos?
“Airlift”, then, is very relevant in our times, as the world seems to be getting polarized with every move we make and every breath we take. Amidst all this madness and cynicism, it will warm you with a patriotic flair that India so badly requires – and no, you don’t have to stand up or salute. You’ll do it sitting in your seat in the cinema hall, with a lump in your throat and a teary blur in your vision. And I’ll be danged if you don’t hum “Didi” a couple of hours after you come out of the cinema hall.
Watch the trailer of Airlift here: