Sitting in a packed theatre with fellow cinemagoers merrily consuming their popcorn and Pepsi, I cynically explored the possibility of Airlift being all gas and no steel. In the opening five minutes, I had decided that this movie was all gas after all. Akshay Kumar had taken centre stage at a party (quite literally), and was shaking a leg midst skimpily clad belly dancers. Ah, I thought. This is Akshay Kumar being Akshay Kumar. How wrong I was.
Airlift is a special movie. Based on a true event – the largest human evacuation in recorded history, the plot had potential to be riveting and didactic. Airlift is all that and so much more.
Packed into a run-time of 130 minutes, Airlift plunges into the heart of the plot after some hackneyed context setting. Akshay Kumar plays a supercilious billionaire with an ever-gorgeous Mrs. Living in Kuwait, this couple has everything they need – expensive cars, an enormous mansion and a wide network of influential people. All hell breaks loose when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait for politico-military reasons and establishes a coup. Thousands of Indians are instantly displaced, left without shelter. Their new found home had transformed into a war-zone.
What ensues is relentless pressure applied on the Indian community, as young Iraqi soldiers plunder the land and kill for fun. About 170,000 Indians residing in Kuwait have nowhere to go, shattered by the see-saw between hope and despair, while they look to their homeland to rescue them from their pitiful plight.
One man is (self) tasked with the responsibility to ensure that every Indian finds asylum or reaches Indian shores unscathed. That man is Akshay Kumar.
At this point, I expected full-blown Bollywood drama and for the superstar in Akshay Kumar to burst out of the shadows and become the saviour. To my pleasant surprise, it wasn’t the superstar that I saw emerge, but a long-lost actor with endearing talent that had disappeared under years of cinematic debris.
Akshay Kumar elevates his acting standards to galactic proportions in this film. His stardom absent, Akshay is earnest and brutally raw in his portrayal of Ranjit Katyal. He wears his emotions unapologetically and brings to life the character of a terrified common man driven by humanity and not by fear. He is ably supported by Nimrat Kaur, who initially signals the frightening possibility of being just eye candy. Her role grows in significance with the passing of every frame.
Although the movie-poster implies that the herculean effort was undertaken by one man, director Raja Menon deftly brings balance to the film. Akshay does have maximum screen-time, but his dependence on several key characters is never underplayed. Menon maintains a firm grip on the film, as he tones down the melodrama and cranks up the tension.
The movie culminates in an inspiring climax, in which Menon yanks the patriotic chords of the viewer’s heart. Songs do not distract from the story-line but are subtly knitted into the screenplay.
There are a few concerns though, which keep the film from attaining perfection. The movie could have been crisper and the quandary isn’t milked to the last drop. Perhaps, the makers wanted a wider audience and had to steer away from exploring darker alleys. Nonetheless, Airlift is a splendid film that makes India proud, not only for the feat that was accomplished 26 years ago, but for the quality of cinema made to illustrate that feat.