There’s normal good-looking and then there’s Akshay Kumar levels of good-looking, wherein the man could have snot dripping off his nose while bawling his eyes out and still look like a goddamn movie star.
That said, it would be wrong to say that Kumar, one of Hindi cinema’s most indefatigable and prolific leading men, does a bad job as the hero of this week’s release, Airlift. Far from it. As fictionalised Indian-origin, Kuwait-based businessman Ranjit Katiyal, he is absolutely fantastic in this solid and efficient evacuation drama. In fact, this is probably the best performance of his career.
A great vehicle for it, too, provided by director Raja Krishna Menon, who has previously directed the indies Bas Yun Hi (2003) and Barah Aana (2009). It took him more than a decade to make this film, based on the real-life airlift of 1.7 lakh Indians in Kuwait who were stranded in no man’s land after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded the Gulf country in 1990. The effort shows: Airlift is a solid entertainer that proves, at last, that a film can have mass appeal (one can imagine this working very well at the box-office) without insulting your intelligence.
Kumar’s Katiyal seems to have it all — wealth, a picture-perfect family that includes trophy wife Amrita (Nimrat Kaur) and an adorable daughter, and connections with the most powerful people in the region. We don’t spend too much time getting to know him, unfortunately, which leads to the script coming up with lines that feel somewhat tokenistic and expository. When he sits in his car and snarls at his driver for playing ‘Ek Do Teen’ from Tezaab (1988), you can almost hear the screenwriters (Ritesh Shah, Suresh Nair, Rahul Nangia, and Menon) say, “Haan, so this scene will establish his cynicism about India right away and then we can build a graph.”
When the Iraqis invade, Katiyal’s faith in the Kuwaiti government starts fading away when he realises that they’ve all fled. The CGI used to depict tanks and helicopters is, admittedly, lacklustre; however, Menon and DoP Priya Seth make up for it to quite an extent with the help of impressively detailed production design (UAE’s Ras al-Khaimah stands in for Kuwait City) and nifty handheld camerawork.
It is at this point that Airlift, quite precariously, sidesteps several pitfalls. An almost caricaturishly evil Iraqi major, who has commandeered the attack on the city, turns out to be someone who had once headed a security detail for Katiyal. He is played by Inaamulhaq (last seen in 2012's Filmistaan), a fine actor who somehow pulls off the role despite having to put on a slightly questionable accent. In another scene, as he drives through a neighbourhood wrecked by young Iraqi soldiers, Kumar weeps — which is enough to distract us from an extra in the background who seems to be half-heartedly kicking a wall for no reason. Then, of course, there are the songs that are forcefully injected into the narrative for the apparent benefit of audiences (or is it distributors?). Mercifully, Menon ensures that they end just before the point some viewers might start peering into their smartphones.
Where the film really works is the manner in which the script commits to setting up arcs for several supporting characters and sees them through till the end. It also helps that the casting by Vicky Sidana is bang-on, ranging from Kaur, whose earthiness helps salvage a role that could’ve been utterly thankless in the hands of a less capable actress, to the reliable Prakash Belawadi, playing an irate Malayali man who finds fault with everything Kumar does. Purab Kohli and Kaizaad Kotwal lend able support in their roles, while Kumud Mishra, playing an officer in Delhi’s Ministry of External Affairs, hits all the right notes in a turn that, again, could’ve been disastrously forced.
Anchoring all these elements together is Menon’s sure-handed, consistent direction. He exercises enough restraint to pass muster, letting the movie earn its rousing moments rather than inserting them in forcefully, and eschews jingoism. It also helps that the film, despite dealing with an essentially grim subject, possesses a likeably wry sense of humour (there’s a joke all cricket fans will appreciate).
It must be said though, that Airlift’s strengths, ironically, serve to show how low our expectations from commercial Hindi films are. In the larger scheme of things, this is the kind of film that Hollywood, for example, would’ve made in the ‘90s or early ‘00s (okay, it’s better than, say, The Siege, but you get my drift).
But by commercial Hindi cinema’s incredibly low standards, which compel some critics to praise offensively idiotic films like Wazir, Airlift is a revelation. It is several steps ahead of Kumar’s other recent January releases, Baby (2015) and Special 26 (2013), and deserves all the box-office it can get. The bar has been raised and it’s about bloody time.
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