Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated takeover of Kuwait in 1990 caught the world by surprise. The fast-changing events during the invasion—random confiscation, arbitrary imprisonment, rape and pillage by Iraqi troops—suddenly left thousands of migrants (along with locals) in fear for their lives. Faced with what was perceived as indifference by the Indian government, over 170,000 Indian nationals found their fates hanging in limbo as well. Shrewdly recounting that seismic event in Kuwait’s history, Menon’s engrossing and sometimes zealously flag-waving Airlift is satisfyingly entertaining.
Set in Kuwait City in 1990, business man Ranjit Katyal (Kumar) has his hands full with running his diversified mini business empire. The first report of the Iraqi invasion, therefore, is dismissed as a border skirmish, commonplace in the region. As fighting and looting breaks out in his neighborhood, Katyal ends up at his office and then at a business warehouse where 500 Indians soon gather. As the crowd gets larger and efforts at an organized rescue run into dead walls of dismissive Indian officials, Katyal finds himself smack in the center of the chaos.
Kumar’s well-acted Katyal is at first highly reluctant. He is a free-marketer first and would much rather tend to his business dealings and luxury desert living then to get involved in any kind of an organized rescue. He would just as soon pack off his wife (Kaur) to a safe haven in London.
At the outset, he is shown somewhat removed from his Indian roots and looking down upon “them,” the not so well off toiling masses of migrants. After some scary run-ins with the advancing Iraqi soldiers—a few of whom are barely teenagers—and witnessing the horrors of war first hand, Katyal undergoes an epiphany and steps in to coordinate a massive rescue by any means necessary.
The other noteworthy performance is by Inaamulhaq, an underrated actor who did a wonderful job as the Hindi-movie crazed Pakistani buffoon that bonded with a clueless Indian counterpart who accidentally crossed into Pakistan in Filmistan (2012). Like any good devious invader, Innamhulaq’s Major Zayd in Airlift is an unabashedly corrupt Iraqi officer who appears harmless and personable at first and yet holds the sinister power to pull the strings to large events unfolding in Kuwait. He is a heavily-accented, seedy amoral counterpart to Kumar’s Satyal and is a delight to watch.
The soundtrack hits higher notes with Ankit Tiwari and Arijit Singh’s tandem number “Dil Cheez Tujhe Dedi,” a playfully Arabesque party song in search of belly-dancing and a hookah-bar. Arijit Singh and Tulsi Kumar’s “Soch Na Sake” is easy on the ears. The thematically patriotic and earthily sentimental touches to Amal Mallik and K.K’s “Tu Bhula Jise” has a hook that taps into re-discovering one’s roots. Much like Pankaj Udhas’s “Chhithi Ayee Hain” from Naam (1986), which was also set in the Middle East, the songs and the lyrics shine like a beacon for restless expats longing for home.
Katyal’s story touches on failed repeated attempts by Katyal’s team to reach Kuwaiti officials, all of whom appear to have mysteriously disappeared, and Indian officials, all of whom want to get Katyal off the phone as quickly as possible.
He tries the Jordanians, who will help only if India grants travel guarantees, which may not come soon enough. Katyal’s dimming hopes rest solely on his success at navigating the back channels of India’s infamous bureaucratic red tape and finally reaching an agreeable functionary (Mishra). The rescue—it did arrive —was a huge undertaking that involved Air India and Indian pilots agreeing to enter dangerous air space. More than 400 flights were launched, which went on record as the largest civilian air rescue ever.
The volatile politics of the Middle East habitually ensnare governments, armies, insurgents, terrorists and even a superpower or two. That list no doubt would include the millions of ordinary people—including migrants from nearby India—whose lives were uprooted by larger-than-life events, some of which were fueled by violence.
Despite a generally favorable eye on Kuwait, Airlift ended up being banned from releasing in Kuwait.
Like Ram Madhvani’s steller Neerja, which is another re-telling of real events from recent Middle East history, Airlift also hinges on one courageous individual mustering courage to stand up to bullies. Like Neerja, that is reason enough to root for a successful Airlift.