While Akshay Kumar's Airlift has met with appreciation from a majority of its audience, people who are more familiar with the details of the operation to evacuate thousands of Indians from Kuwait in 1990-91 have several bones to pick with the film.
Airlift's makers have claimed that the film is based on a real-life incident that took place across 1990-91, when Iraq attacked Kuwait and thousands of Indians were stranded. A group of businessman, headed by one particularly enterprising man, led an operation to evacuate the Indians. Akshay Kumar plays Ranjit Katiyal, the man who leads the procedure.
However, several critics and people who have been a part of the operation have pointed out that the research that went into making the film was inadequate leading to inaccurate portrayal of various incidents. Moreover, it has also been questioned why Mathunny Mathews, a man from Kumbanad, Kerala has been turned into Ranjit Katiyal, a north Indian man in Menon's cinematic version of the evacuation. And among the ones miffed are the Ministry of External Affairs, whose spokesperson VIkas Swarup recently took to Twitter to point out the flaws in the film.
.@AirliftFilm: Great entertainment but rather short on facts :) Here's our take
— Vikas Swarup (@MEAIndia) January 28, 2016
He even shared the link to a 15-page document which explains the evacuation during the 1990-1991 Gulf Wars in great detail. The document can be accessed here.
Former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao also tweeted about the loopholes in the film.
"Airlift" the movie falls completely short in its research on role of @MEAIndia in 1990-91 Gulf War.
— Nirupama Rao (@NMenonRao) January 25, 2016
The primary grouse of the diplomats seem to be the fact that the film suggests that the evacuation was possible primarily due to the efforts of the character played by Akshay Kumar, Ranjit Katiyal. The film has seemingly overlooked the contribution of the Indian government and the ministry of external affairs during the incident. Like it is with most Bollywood films, where the hero assumes a demigod-like personality, Kumar is shown as the one who made the entire process possible. And to make that possible, the MEA has been allegedly shown as being reluctant and lazy.
It is pretty routine to turn politicians and governments into villains in Indian potboilers and such storylines have not regularly elicited protests from the government. However, this time, Airlift seems to have touched a raw nerve and diplomats feel that their clan has been unnecessarily made to look bad to glorify the film's hero.
The document shared by Swarup on Twitter is the version of the events narrated by KP Fabian, the diplomat in charge of the evacuation from Kuwait. The document begins with the following introductory paragraph: "K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador of India to Qatar, to Finland and to Italy, was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs during the First Gulf War that began with the Iraqi forces crossing into Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and lasted until they were expelled on 27 February 1991. He coordinated the repatriation of over 176,000 Indians. Recognised as the biggest ever air evacuation in history, it was achieved against many odds."
Director Raja Menon told NDTV that the government does end up looking good in the film because the film finally shows them evacuating the stranded citizens. KP Fabian, while talking about the long-drawn process which involved several diplomatic challenges, had recounted that when the Indian government entourage reached Kuwait, the stranded Indians were indeed unhappy with the government's response and were angry.
He says, "There, our Ambassador (Budhiraja) told Minister Gujral that a few thousand Indians were waiting for him and
that they were very angry. He advised that he should not meet them and that the accompanying officials could do so. Their anger was understandable. We had arrived in Kuwait on 14 August, twelve days after the invasion had taken place. They were right in expecting that their government should rush to their assistance. Our citizens abroad are entitled to assistance of our government in times of need and consular protection at all times. It is part of India’s sovereign obligation to protect them. Minister Gujral consulted us and we suggested that he should not postpone the meeting as our purpose of going there was to meet our people, assuage their feelings and help them."
It's not only diplomats who seem to have been irked by the portrayal of the Indian government, several people who had been evacuated recount that the rescue wouldn't have been possible without the government officials' able assistance. Viju Cherian, who was evacuated a younsgter from Kuwait, writes in Hindustan Times about the government's efforts:
"Airlift cunningly taps into the general resentment towards Indian politicians and bureaucrats. It is dismissive of New Delhi’s efforts to ensure the safe passage of Indians from Kuwait. But the fact remains that the then foreign minister IK Gujral met Saddam himself to negotiate the rescue, even if he was broadly panned for his pains - a photograph showing the two in an embrace quickly became infamous. A film like Airlift is an example of what happens when governments fail to communicate their achievements and leave filmmakers to be the sole shapers of public opinion around a dramatic historic event."
While director and the actor have tried to defend the film saying it is a fictionalised version of the events that unfolded at the time, Indian diplomats and a section of people who were evacuated are not willing to buy that explanation for the film's alleged inaccuracies.
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