A thick smog of despair hangs suspended throughout the first half of Airlift. The events are all set in daylight but there’s darkness and the grim hopelessness latches on to you. Much of the credit goes to how well directed Airlift is. Raja Krishna Menon gets the perfect mood with minimal background score. One couldn’t be more wrong in saying Airlift follows in the vein of an action thriller like Baby because the two films are nothing like each other. Yes they are both well filmed and they both star Akshay Kumar but that’s where the similarities end. Iraq has invaded Kuwait City and people are killed on the streets and homes ransacked. The city is a war zone and as daily civilian life comes to a complete standstill, all things known gather dust. It is filmed too in that yellowish hue of a desert storm, the coalition forces campaign launched as response at that time. The idea of India too has gathered dust and a collective identity has been lost among Indians living there, consciously or otherwise. And there’s no one embodying that better than Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar).
Menon wields complete control over the proceedings and he establishes characters in just a note. In the music Ranjit prefers, in the exchanges with his driver, his talent as a people’s person and a negotiator, or his cynicism about the Indian government. Anyone from pre-liberalization India will recognize that brand of NRI. Menon packs all of this in just the first few minutes, the few minutes that we recall as part of a satisfying reflection later in the film. The focus of the film is also not as much as the events soon after as the micro stories around the people involved. The two stories that register are the ones belonging to George – played by the ever dependable Prakash Belawadi – and Ibrahim (Purab Kohli). Belawadi brings in that cunning self-centered nature to George, something one uncomfortably navigates at that age when all hope has been lost. Ibrahim’s story is rendered more interesting purely by how Menon chooses to present it. It has an air of mystery to it and our opinion of him does a one-eighty degree turn during the course of the film.
What we don’t buy is Ranjit’s altruistic turn. But the whole premise of Airlift is built on giving in to it so after a point this doesn’t function as a roadblock. There is a humbling charm to it because he is left depending on the very system that he so despised all his life. And we are also shown how that system does not work like clockwork. A clock hangs in the office of External Affairs showing 1 PM and employees leaving for lunch ignore the first call from Kuwait asking for help. Kohli (Kumud Mishra) is left to pull all stops to get to them. It takes a lot of heart and sweat beyond the call of duty and when done, the real workers are sidelined in celebration.
One actor who has been sidelined is possibly Akshay Kumar, thanks and no thanks to the large number of nonsensical comedies he has done. The star is well recognized but what about the actor? That part of Kumar is in full portrayal here. It doesn’t scream “look at me” as he goes about the length of the film wandering in utter helplessness first, then as a passive onlooker and finally a man of action. But a different kind of man of action than what we are used to with Kumar. When he is told that there are others and not just his employees taking shelter in his office all he can muster is silence. It is a mute approval to let them be and a mark of his complete transformation. He may be an action hero but he matches fists only in one instance and that too is curtailed as Menon chooses to go with the larger theme of the film. It is time we recognized the actor-star that he is now and consistent with his choice of films. Not only average comedies but also the well packaged entertainers like Special 26, Baby and now Airlift.
Airlift is one of those rare director’s films. There is a big stretch where Indians in the makeshift camp have no hope and nothing moves or happens with even food getting scant. This is complimented by the flow of the film which too comes to a halt at a point. Airlift is a triumph of the mainstream, a mainstream that gets sidelined in the critics’ circle either with a patronizing tone or cynicism. This one though deserves all its celebration on a pedestal.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)