As one who has suffered through old time Hindi movies with improbable stories, innumerable dance numbers, and songs sung by heroes pursing heroines around trees, I am still surprised by the advances made by Bollywood films in recent years. Granted there are still some throwbacks to old time movies but there are now many Bollywood films with strong, realistic plot lines, good acting and cinematography, and production values that rival anything that Hollywood has to offer.
One such movie, a recent release, is “Airlift”, which is based on a real life happening, the rescue of 170,000 Indian workers stranded in Kuwait as a result of the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The protagonist is Ranjit Katyal ( Akshay Kumar) an Indian businessman in Kuwait whose only motivation is money. Hard drinking, hard partying Ranjit is living high on the hog when the Iraqis invade Kuwait. Initially, Ranjit and his businessman friends do not worry about their situation; their expectation, and that of most Kuwaitis, is that the Americans will soon arrive and oust the Iraqi invaders. Gradually, the precariousness of their existence dawns on Ranjit. As he attempts to reach his office he sees the widespread looting and the rampant destruction that has been unleashed. What shocks him to reality is the cold blooded murder of his driver, Kurian, by a gun-toting 16 year old soldier. He himself only escapes that fate because of the intervention of an Iraqi major Khalaf Bin Zayed ( Imanul Huq) who had met Ranjit when he was in Baghdad for a business deal. Major Khalaf was his interpreter and assistant and he protects Ranjit for old times sake and, of course, to extort money from him.
Initially Ranjit seeks to help only his employees but other Indian workers also seek refuge and he is unable to turn them away. The experience of trying to feed them and give them shelter changesRanjit from a selfish man to one who takes on the responsibility for his fellow Indians, first to keep them alive and later to somehow get them to safety. It’s a gripping story with one setback after another until Ranjit finally succeeds..
Akshay Kumar turns in a sterling performance as Ranjit, the businessman who is initially out only for himself but gradually becomes a man obsessed with saving his fellow Indians. His transformation is utterly credible and, as you watch the film unfold, he becomes Ranjit; no longer do you see him as an actor playing a role. It is a bravura performance from someone who until now was not known for his acting. It’s still early in the year but I would be surprised if he is not nominated for a Best Actor Award 2016.
Akshay as Ranjit dominates the film but he is ably supported by Nimrat Kaur who plays his wife , Amrita. In the course of the film, Amrita too undergoes a transformation. From a trophy wife exasperated at her husband’s sybaritic lifestyle but who nevertheless thinks only about her family, she becomes one who like her husband begins to care about all the Indians in Kuwait. In the process she falls in love with her husband all over again.
Other notable performances come from Prakash Belawadi as George Kutty , as a cantankerous, obnoxious old man concerned only about himself; Imranul Huq as the venal Iraqi major; Kumud Mishra as Sanjeev Kohli, a mid-level bureaucrat in New Delhi who helps Ranjit when the Minister and other bigwigs don’t give a hoot. and Purab Kohli as Ibrahim Durrani, Ranjit’s right hand man.
The film is gripping as Ranjit lurches from one setback after another even as the situation becomes ever more precarious. The scenes showing the Iraqis overrunning Kuwait and the attendant burning and looting are so realistic that you wonder how they were shot and where ( Much of the film was shot in UAE and Rajasthan). The few songs in the movie are catchy but unobtrusive. All in all, the movie rivals anything to come out of Hollywood.
One criticism I have about the movie direction: the latter parts of the movie seem rushed. The final phase of the evacuation in which 170,000 Indian citizens were airlifted by almost 500 flights, most by Air India personnel, and the difficulty of getting them passports could have been spun out a little more. Also I wish more prominence had been given to Sunny( Toyota) Matthews and Vedi, the two real life heroes who orchestrated the evacuation and on whom the fictitious character Ranjit Katiyal is based. There is only a brief mention of them in the closing credits. I had never heard of them earlier and allegedly their names had been previously withheld for security reasons. Security reasons? Give me a break. I think it is more likely that the minister and other bureaucrats wanted to take all the credit for the operation, the largest ever airlift of its kind. The movie depicts the government functionaries as slothful, uncaring and unwilling to take any responsibility but only too happy to be front and center for publicity when something is a success. Sounds true to life.
Four stars out of five. Do see the movie; you won’t regret it.