Raja Krishna Menon isn’t known as much for his feature films as for his advertising work. A veteran of around 400 ad films, the 44-year-old has worked with some of the biggest brands around, such as Ford and Tata Motors.
His favourite amongst all of these ads, however, is one people might remember from the early ‘00s, for the toilet-cleaner brand Harpic, which featured a documentary-like crew barging into people’s homes to ask them how clean their loos are. “I still think it’s the best one I ever did,” he says, with a wide grin, during a chat with HuffPost India in suburban Mumbai. “It changed the format and got imitated a lot.”
Raja Krishna Menon, director of Airlift
He doesn’t say it, but it’s easy to see that Menon hopes for a similar result with his third feature film, Airlift, which releases this Friday. An evacuation drama starring Akshay Kumar and Nimrat Kaur, it tells the story of a powerful, obscenely wealthy Indian businessman named Ranjit Katiyal who helped more than 1.1 lakh Indians living in Kuwait find their way back to India in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait — the largest civilian evacuation in history, carried out largely by Air India with support from the Indian Air Force.
“Ranjit Katiyal is not a real character — he’s an amalgamation of several actual businessmen who lived in Kuwait at the time and helped get in touch with the [Indian] government,” he says. “So the film is set within real events, but includes fictional elements.”
Made at a reported cost of Rs 30 crore and shot on-location in Delhi and Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates (“It looks a lot like Kuwait from 1990; Kuwait City today is ultra-modern,” he explains), Airlift promises to be an appealing mix of human drama against the backdrop of war and hardcore, balls-to-the-wall action flick, favouring long takes and choreographed action over Bayhem.
A still from Airlift, featuring Akshay Kumar
It has taken more than a decade for Menon to get this film airborne. Before this, he has written and directed two films: Bas Yun Hi (2003), starring Purab Kohli and Nandita Das; and Barah Aana (2009), starring Naseeruddin Shah and Vijay Raaz. Both of them were vastly different from Airlift in the sense that they were small-budget non-commercial films, nowadays fashionably referred to as ‘content-driven cinema’. He guffaws at the oxymoron: “What else is a film supposed to have if not content?”
Airlift, whose slickly packaged promos have generated bullishness about its box-office prospects, aims to deliver ‘content’ along with a much bigger budget than anything he’s ever worked with. It also benefits from Kumar’s star value. “I mean, on a basic level, it’s just such a pleasure to put him in a frame — he’s just so bloody good-looking,” he says. “But the amount of work he’s put into this role is phenomenal. He really gets the story we’re trying to tell and would spend three hours getting into character everyday.”
Raja Krishna Menon with Akshay Kumar during the shoot of Airlift
Kumar, who starred in the entertaining-albeit-somewhat-jingoistic Baby (2015) that released roughly a year ago, was a natural choice for this movie, feels Menon. “I’m not really a chest-thumping, nationalist kind of a guy,” he says. “I feel that the world should be borderless. But there is this intangible sense of belonging — what we call ‘Indianness’, I guess — that I really wanted to capture. So there’s this guy [Kumar’s character], who has made it big in Kuwait in the early ‘90s, who is cynical about India and the opportunities it can give him. But when everything goes to hell, he finds that the only way out is to turn to the country that he has left behind.”
He compares this to the feeling of teenage angst, wherein you rebel against your parents in adolescence only to reconcile with them later. For him, the cynicism of his lead character is akin to the cynicism he sees in India today, especially amongst her youth.
He relates an example that he came across in his research for the movie (which involved speaking to the pilots who were part of the operation) that illustrates this point. “There was this entire fleet of Airbus A320s that had been grounded,” he says. “The civil aviation ministry asked if there was anything actually wrong with them and the response was, no, just a technical issue… like, a bureaucratic technicality between Airbus and us. So the ministry said screw it, let’s fly them.”
“Amazing, right? This was the level of decision-making that went on at the time. Does this sound like the India we know? That’s what I want to show the youngsters of today — that this country is capable of doing great, selfless things for its citizens.”
Airlift, starring Akshay Kumar and Nimrat Kaur, releases in theatres worldwide on Friday, January 22.
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