1,70,000 refugees. 488 flights. 59 days. 1 man. Sounds promising, right? Especially when it refers to a film based on the largest human evacuation in history. Raja Krishna Menon's Airlift narrates the story of how India managed to evacuate more than a lakh Indians from Kuwait after it was attacked by Iraq on August 1, 1990, over a little less than two months using 488 flights, thanks to Air India and the then Indian Airlines.
Or so one would think, going by the tagline. To set things straight, the 130-minute film focuses on the efforts of an Indian businessman, Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar), to get his countrymen to a haven to be rescued by the Indian government. The 'airlift' itself is confined to the final few minutes of the otherwise gripping film, which suffers from a hastily-wrapped up climax.
'When the going gets tough, the tough get going' holds true for the character of Akshay, which is modelled on Mathunny Mathews (and a certain Vedi), popularly known as Toyota Sunny, who played a stellar role in monitoring the rescue efforts in real life. Ranjit is a shrewd tycoon who abhors his Indian identity and considers himself a Kuwaiti. He enjoys his wine and women (Akki's Casanova image is kept intact with the hip-swaying number Dil Cheez Tujhe De Di), and has occasional tiffs with his wife, Amrita (Nimrat Kaur). But his luxurious life comes crashing down when Iraqi forces come calling (the first blast in a labour camp will throw you off-guard but the subsequent visual effects of the 'invasion' left a lot to be desired) and the Kuwait government takes flight, leaving him stranded along with the rest of the Indians.
He realises, ironically, what protects him and others is their Indian nationality. Ranjit turns into a patriot overnight, and becomes the messiah for the rest of the Indians trapped in the war-zone. How he shelters over a lakh Indians under a roof, the hurdles he faces, the initial apathy of the Indian government, and how he finally shepherds them to Jordan to be airlifted to safety, forms the rest of the film. The story offers a lot of scope for Akshay to perform and he does not disappoint one bit. Airlift offers yet another peek into the actor's versatility, having done films as poles apart as Baby and Singh is Bliing last year.
He is ably supported by Nimrat, who shows the right amount of restraint and aggression wherever needed, Kumud Mishra as the sluggish yet well-intentioned joint secretary, Sanjeev Kohli, who emerges as the unsung hero, Prakash Belawadi as George, the chronic complainer in the relief camp, among others. The only let-down was Iraqi Major Khalaf Bin Zayd (Inaamulhaq), who was more amusing than menacing, with his fake accent.
Such largely impressive performances, however, are dulled by the screenplay, which fails, on more than one occasion, to sustain the tense, violent and edge-of-the-seat moments that are characteristic of such films (remember the Oscar-winning hostage crisis drama Argo?). That said, there is no denying that Airlift is a giant leap for the director, whose earlier films like Bas Yun Hi (2003) and Barah Aana (2009) did not make much of an impression. The film hammers home the fact that crisis unites all, and that adversity brings out the best in some. With the film timed to perfection—a stone's throw from Republic Day—do we see Akshay flashing his gummy smile already?
Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Nimrat Kaur, Kumud Mishra, Prakash Belawadi, Purab Kohli, Inaamulhaq