By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift undoubtedly lifts the director out of the eminently forgettable cinema he had made, Bas Yun Hi and Barah Aana. Based on a true incident in 1990, when Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait shattering the dreams and lives and livelihoods of the 170,000 Indians there. Airlift tells you how the expats were evacuated in probably the biggest civilian operation of the kind carried out by India’s Air Force and national carriers, Air India and Indian Airlines.
And the man who made all this possible and oversaw the airlift was Ranjit Katyal, played with superb finesse by Akshay Kumar. Nobody knows whether there was a Ranjit Katyal in Kuwait, but it is averred that there were two men who did facilitate the operation in those dark days when Hussein’s boy soldiers —uncontrollably trigger-happy — shot, maimed, plundered and raped at will. Of course, they targeted Kuwaitis, and tried to leave Indians alone. For India was a friend of Saddam Hussein in those days.
Airlift is a poignant reminder of how Indians in those faraway lands forget their home and hearth, and Katyal is no exception. He is rich and powerful, lives with his wife Amrita (Nimrat Kaur) and child, and arrogantly believes that he is a Kuwaiti, not an Indian. And when he finds his house destroyed by marauding Iraqi soldiers, his driver killed and his huge construction conglomerate in ruins, Katyal falls, his ego buried in rubble and dust, his riches rubbished.
It cannot but be a defining moment in anybody’s life, however mighty that man may be. Katyal’s painful transformation from a money-spinning, profit-is-my-mantra guy to a do-gooder, who begins to see the turmoil and suffering in other people’s lives as his own, has been most ably conveyed by Kumar — whose slate till now has been largely one of rather shallow parts, baring of course a movie like Special 26, where I found him subtle and impressive. It is the same avatar that one sees in Kumar as he battles to get 170,000 Indians out of Kuwait.
Unfortunately, the film is not uniform as far as performances go. Kaur, who was just magnificent as the bored, neglected wife in The Lunchbox and who begins a love affair with an ageing Irrfan Khan through the little notes she sends in the “tiffin-carrier”, seems out of place in all the regalia that Airlift bestows upon her. To me she looked uncomfortable — clearly a case of miscasting.
The age-old folly of Bollywood rears its head again in the form of Inaamul Huq — who essays the Iraqi villain. It is caricaturing all over again, and making the man speak in stilted Hindi is a terrible mistake. Menon could have got him to lisp in English, and this could have salvaged this character somewhat.
And Prakash Belawadi as the troublesome Keralite in the group is fine to a point, but appears too dramatic as the evacuation gets underway.
Airlift is admirable in many parts. There are some arresting moments between Katyal and his employees, between his wife and so on, and the work is slick — almost like a well-made Hollywood thriller.
However, Menon’s attempt at the end to evoke patriotism appears all too familiar and forced. Once-upon-a-time Bollywood cinema did this, but in this day and age, such a stand or approach merely looks hollow. Indians certainly do not need to be reminded that they are Indians. And that too through movies!
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Some of the world’s greatest directors have said that though cinema might have its own lingo, one makes a film best in one’s own language. If there is one movie that may be termed Satyajit Ray’s “flop” it is Shatranj Ke Khilari. It was in Hindi, which the maestro was never comfortable doing.
And this is often true in the case of actors as well. Watch how uncomfortable British-model-turned actress Amy Jackson is while she essays a Tamil girl. She may give interview after interview saying that she is perfectly at ease playing the lass from a Tamil milieu (“I am a Tamil girl”), but her performances say something very different.
Similarly, Madhavan — who will be seen in the upcoming bilingual film, Irudhi Suttru (Tamil)/Saala Khadoos (Hindi) — has been his best in Tamil cinema. True, he grew up in Jamshedpur and speaks Hindi fluently, but he was raised in a typical Tamil family. His parents were Tamil.
His Tamil movies with Mani Ratnam were his best till date. His 2000 debut Tamil work with the director, Alaipayuthey, traced a troubled marriage (Shalini was his screen wife), and Madhavan sailed through this part with dignity, with controlled emotion and with a kind of subtlety rarely seen in Tamil cinema. Ratnam can draw memorable performances out of his actors; remember his Nayagan and Kamal Haasan.
A year later, Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal once again saw Madhavan at his best, playing the foster father of a girl from Sri Lanka, a girl who wants to go back to meet her biological mother in the war-torn island nation. Madhavan conveyed all the emotions of an anxious parent — afraid he might lose his child — with extraordinary conviction.
His 2012 Vettai, also in Tamil, saw Madhavan magically transform first into a meek cop and later into an epitome of courage and bravery. The change in the course of a couple of hours was remarkable and proved that Madhavan could keep us spellbound with his acting skills.
Admittedly, some of the Hindi works of his like Rang De Basanti, Three Idiots and Tanu Weds Manu revealed that he could be impressive in that language as well. But I feel that Madhavan is cut out for still greater times in Tamil cinema.
And one waits with almost bated breath to see him in Irudhi Suttru — where he turns into a boxing coach, Prabhu Selvaraj (and as Adi Tomar in Saala Khadoos). A terrible defeat in the ring leaves him shattered and disillusioned — pushing him to booze and brawls. But his dream to see India win a gold medal eggs him to train a fiery fisherwoman, Madhi (Ritika Singh). With just nine months to go for the big boxing day, Prabhu’s task is no cakewalk. He has to first tame Madhi and help her reign in her temper and tantrum, before he can get her to drive the punches.
While Madhavan had to work for over two years to look the character, Singh was a trained boxer, which made the job easy.
And there was another plus point. The director of the bilingual work, Sudha Kongara Prasad, was once an assistant of Ratnam, and we know how well Madhavan has fared in Mani’s pictures.
So, Irudhi Suttru seems like a win-win situation for Madhavan, a film that may turn out to be one more significant milestone in Tamil cinema.
However, one only hopes that Prasad has steered clear of any similarities between her own work and the likes of other sports movies, like Chak De India, Bhaag Milka Bhaag and Mary Kom.
l Gautaman Bhaskaran has been
writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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