Airlift is a film based on a true story- the aerial evacuation of one hundred and seventy thousand Indians trapped in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein invaded that country in 1990 and that region became a war zone. The feat of evacuating such a large number of people by civilian aircraft remains the largest such civilian airlift in world history. But strangely this very real fact has not been given prominence by either the Indian media or the government, and it is only a quarter century after the airlift that someone has woken up to make a film on it. Giving oneself a pat on the back is apparently an art forgotten by Indians, who are more busy making films glorifying dons based in Karachi or denigrating the country’s image overseas.
And the pat on the back is not given to the real persons who were involved in the making of the evacuation, for the simple reason that they do not fit the stereotypical image of the Bollywood hero- neither do they look like heroes nor do they seem to be Punjabi. So a Punjabi hero is invented out of thin air and he is shown to be the main protagonist of the evacuation. The real heroes get their photos shown only at the fag end of the movie when finally due credit is given to them. So we have to endure a completely fictitious Punjabi hero doing the heroics rather than the real persons , and this is the biggest flaw of the film.
So Akshay Kumar plays a Kuwait based Punjabi businessman who is not in love with his Indian roots, named Ranjeet Katiyal. He considers himself more Kuwaiti than Indian apparently because Kuwait is more rich. But very soon an event occurs that makes him remember his Indianness. Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi army invades Kuwait and while Kuwaitis are dying dog’s deaths at the hands of Iraqi soldiers, Indians are safe. For the Indian government had gone to great lengths to cultivate good relations with Saddam Hussein in the past, he being the only ruler in the Islamic world to support India on the Kashmir issue. So Indians are not going to be killed for the time being. But time is running out even then, for if the Indians are not evacuated quickly then they will become trapped in a war between the Iraqis and American led coalition that is hell bent on liberating Kuwait.
Since Ranjeet is shown to be a rich and influential man, it is upto him to safeguard the people who work for him and like a responsible person, he starts to so exactly that. This even though his wife (played by Nimrat Kaur) is exasperated by his taking so much responsibility and not looking only for his family’s safety. And he is soon forced to look out for other Indians who come to his office to seek shelter, including some really pesky ones like the character (George) played by Prakash Belawadi. As the Iraqi army goes on the rampage in Kuwait, the task of looking out for Indians’ safety involves know-towing to the demands for bribes by the Iraqi officer stationed in the area, trying to arrange food and other supplies for the trapped Indians, making trips to Iraq to get the permission from Iraqi authorities to allow the Indians to leave Kuwait and in the meantime trying to smuggle Indians out of Kuwait, phoning the Indian government back home to try to get the lethargic government babus to work on organizing the airlift and hiding the lone Kuwaiti woman who has come to him seeking refuge to the extent of taking grave personal risk for himself because the Iraqis almost rape his wife when they realise that he is sheltering a Kuwaiti, thus forcing him to fight them in filmy fashion in what is a completely fictitious scene.
Needless to say, Ranjeet does his task with aplomb. Our Bollywood Punjabi heroes never fail, do they? And slowly even his wife comes round to admire what he has been doing, to the point of shutting up the mouth in a verbal duel of the pesky person (George) who has been mouthing his platitude of complaints in front of Ranjeet every now and then.
The film has some real moments of emotion, when the efforts of Ranjeet to save the Indians come close to failure and above all when the efforts meet success you get real goosebumps when the Indian refugees see the tricolour (Indian flag) flying high in the wind in their refugee camp on reaching Jordan, the flying of which is signal that Indians will get the passport to sit in the planes which will take them home. The Indian pilots who are ready to take the risk to pilot their planes to the middle east (which is on the brink of war) are the heroes too and so are the government officers who work tirelessly to get the airlift organized.
The hero as far as the film is concerned is the director, who has made a film that gets better and better as it progresses and gives us an emotional high at the climax, reminding those Indians who live in the gulf and who have forgotten their homeland that ultimately it is the nation’s flag that comes to their rescue in the troubled lands of the middle east where fortunes can change at the whiff of a dictator’s or king’s whim and where stability and money is a fickle thing. Subtly, it also is an advertisement for India’s much maligned (even by myself!!) foreign policy of non alignment, for those Indians could have been held hostages by the Iraqis if India had been an ally of America.
Akshay Kumar acts well and so does Nimrat Kaur. Purab Kohli acts well as the Indian muslim who has lost his wife but saves a young Kuwaiti woman, ultimately posing as her husband to save her. Music and songs are good. The belly dance should have concentrated on the belly dancers rather than the antics of Akshay Kumar! Kumud Mishra puts up a restrained performance as the (again fictitious) government officer who convinces the government minister to organize the airlift and arrange for money to finance the airlift.
Ultimately the pat on the back given to a fictitious person is still a pat on the back and even though the film neglects the real heroes of the airlift it at least remembers a glorious episode in our annals, something that we should be proud of. That the film is a good effort at remembering that episode is the icing on the cake.
Three and a half stars.