Movie Review: Airlift (2016)

Airlift2 Stars (out of 4)

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The evacuation of 170,000 Indian citizens from Kuwait following Iraq’s 1990 invasion is an inspiring tale that deserves a far better movie than Airlift. Writer-director Raja Krishna Menon’s version of events is a snore.

One of the perks of translating a real-life event to the big screen is that one can eliminate all the boring bits and focus on the drama. Instead, Menon forces the audience to endure interminable scenes of characters talking on phones, sitting in meetings, or waiting in hallways for meetings to start. It’s maddening.

Menon uses his creative license to condense the various heroes of the real evacuation into one man (because it’s always one man in Bollywood): Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar). Ranjit’s character setup is pretty good. He’s quickly established as a hard-partying, unscrupulous businessman who encourages his Indian driver to embrace life as a Kuwaiti. Thus, we know that by the end of the film Ranjit will be a conscientious and generous Indian patriot.

Ranjit’s wife, Amrita (Nimrat Kaur), is almost always unhappy with her husband. When she’s not upset with his drinking, she’s mad that he’s putting the well-being of others ahead of her and their daughter. The role itself is not great, but Kaur is great in it. She’s head-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast, with an authoritative voice that commands respect.

The invasion of Kuwait opens with a startling blast and a few grim executions, but the tension subsides almost immediately. Iraqi troops lackadaisically trash stores and homes, and one makes a vaguely rapey gesture at a woman. The general in charge threatens Ranjit so nonchalantly that Ranjit’s not entirely sure that he’s being threatened.

For the most part, the Indians’ nationality protects them, since the Iraqi troops are only interested in harming Kuwaitis. With no end to the hostility in sight, the real problem is how to get about 170,000 Indian citizens — many poor laborers without passports — to safety.

As in many other Hindi movies, the enemy of progress is Indian bureaucracy. With the embassy staff having fled, Ranjit is stuck in Kuwait without knowing who to call. Sanjiv Kohli (Kumud Mishra) — the Foreign Office staff member who happens to take Ranjit’s phone call — is reluctant to help because the Gulf States aren’t his department.

Kohli’s character is a huge missed opportunity to inject energy into the film. He never so much as raises his voice at the succession of ministers who ignore him, content instead to wait quietly outside their offices. Mishra delivers his lines at a snail’s pace, as though trying to lengthen his time on-screen.

Whereas Kohli represents a missed opportunity, another supporting character exists only to annoy. Mr. George (Prakash Belawadi) is an unrepentant curmudgeon who complains through the whole film. His only contribution to the plot is that he finally pisses off Amrita so bad that she yells at him on Ranjit’s behalf. He’s far too irritating for that one scene to justify his presence.

The only supporting character worth a darn is Ibrahim (Purab Kohli), a helpful guy whose subplot gets a touching payoff at film’s end.

Part of Menon’s problem in adapting the story for Airlift is one of scale. He condenses the heroes of the story into one character, but still makes that character responsible for all 170,000 Indians in Kuwait. How is it possible for all of them to be living on the grounds of a single school simultaneously? How many cars would be needed to drive all of them across the border in one night?

It would have made more sense for Ranjit to be in charge of a few thousand evacuees, with his efforts setting the template for the rescue of the rest of the Indians in Kuwait. Making him responsible for all 170,000 people highlights logical impossibilities that can’t be ignored.


32 thoughts on “Movie Review: Airlift (2016)

  1. shrey

    They could have shown the problem in Indian bureaucracy better… actually in 1990 there was economic crises in india with almost no money left in the country and with the gulf war this situation only got worse

    1. Kathy

      Thank you for explaining that, shrey. I didn’t know about the 1990 economic crisis, and the movie doesn’t make it clear at all. Why on earth didn’t Menon emphasize that? The scenes practically write themselves:
      Minister: “Kohli, you know our department doesn’t have the money. Who’s going to pay for this? Me? You?”
      Kohli: “Damnit, Gitesh! They’re INDIANS!”
      Boom. Easy.

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  3. kunal417

    I thought it deserved more than 2, and was a good enough film. Though as is usual, they diverted quite a bit from what actually happened. The external affairs minister actually meeting Saddam Hussein (causing a controversy at the time) which paved the way for the airlift, instead of being indifferent was a major miss I believe. But the acting was great, especially Nimrat Kaur and Purab Kohli for me. Kumud Mishra’s character’s transition was well carried out – from reluctant to helpless to taking real action and talking to the Air India captains. A good movie.

    1. Kathy

      Kunal, did you find this “go see it in the theater immediately” good, or just “check it out on DVD” good?

      Thanks for letting me know that fact about the external affairs minister. It’s another case where the film doesn’t include enough background information, which is why I found it disappointing. I obviously don’t expect writers of Hindi films to account for foreigners like me when writing movies for a mostly Indian audience, but Indians under the age of 25 weren’t even born when the real airlift happened. Besides, you have to be nearly forty in order to have really understood the events in context as they were happening. Menon needed to include way more historical context for the sake of the under-40 Indian audience (the very people who spend the most money at the movies!). As the movie is written, it’s so light on details that it seems more like a fictional event than one that really happened.

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  20. Rebecca Armstrong

    I enjoyed the movie. I’m not sure where you get the idea that he single-handedly evacuates 175,000 Indians. Obviously, he helps whoever’s gathered at the school, which is clearly no more than a couple thousand people. The scenes look like Kuwait City, so at most it would be the Indian population of that one city, or much less. There were plenty of Indians at other cities in Kuwait, not to mention at the oil fields out in the desert.

    Sure, they’ve condensed the roles of several people into one character, but that’s very common in movies based on “real events”. It’s done for economy. The 3 things Ranjit does in the movie are to collect people at the school, arrange for 500 to be transferred by ship, and make a bunch of phone calls to arrange safe passage for Indians to Amman in Jordan, so they could then be airlifted to Delhi. In reality, that was 3 different people, but so what.

    I agree that they could have worked on a few more characters, maybe given a bigger role to Kohli as you said. Fact is, the Indian government’s situation was complicated at the time, and just mentioning the economic crisis would hardly have clarified the situation for the audience, because it was really only a small factor in all that was happening.

    You seem quite cynical about how he starts off as pro-Kuwaiti so you know he’s gonna end up a “conscientious and patriotic Indian” at the end. I didn’t find him particularly conscientious or patriotic at the end, he just realized that India wasn’t quite as bad as he’d imagined, that they actually did what they could. Which is all factual – the Kuwaiti government did abandon the country when Saddam’s tanks entered, India did in fact mount the largest airlift in the history of the world. Not unusual for India either, they did the same last year when they evacuated around 6,000 Indians from Yemen when the Saudis started bombing the Houthi rebels. And not just their own citizens, the Indians also evacuated another 1,000 nationals of dozens of other countries too, including lots of Americans and Canadians.

    Ranjit’s attitude isn’t exactly uncommon among NRIs who tend to imagine the worst of India, but eventually realize that the world is too complicated to paint with a simplistic brush.

    1. Kathy

      “that’s very common in movies based on “real events”. It’s done for economy.” No need to be condescending, Rebecca. We watched the same movie. It worked for you, and it didn’t for me.

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