Raja Menon Directs Akshay Kumar and Nimrat Kaur in the Airlift – the story of the largest ever human evacuation which took place in 1990 when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces attacked and occupied Kuwait. There has been a lot of excitement in the Bollywood circles about this Saving Private Ryan times 111000 type action adventure movie based on real events and the trailer was slickly cut and promised to be a real chest thumping patriotic pride moment just before the republic day. Alas it is everything but that.
Meet Ranjit Katiyal a cut-throat business man played by Akshay Kumar who seems to be schooled in Joey Tribiani school of Smell-The-Fart-Acting. He is a hotshot Kuwaiti businessman who does not identify as Indian anymore, smoozes with the Emirati of Kuwait undercutting his own partner for business contracts and belly dancing at parties. He is married to Nimrat Kaur who was given a one line directive – Be a Bitch no rhyme or reason just be a rich bitch you are not sure till about half way into the movie whether there is any love amongst the two and if not what is the cause of their apparent distance. At one point Akshay Kumar says “it is not us who are wrong but the circumstances” and you are treated to a sombre background score telling you that you need to feel the love.
One moment Ranjit is belly dancing the night away and the next moment he is woken up at 3 am by someone called Anand who I assume says something on the phone because Akshay Kumar holds the phone for a fair few moments. Then Ranjit is frenetically trying to call all his contacts and no one seems to be answering and bitchy wife is worried as to what possessed his husband at this ungodly hour and Akshay Kumar acts a scene straight out from ACP Pradyumann’s hand book “Why did Anand call me at 3 am” why indeed?
It so happens that Iraqi forces have attacked Kuwait and the complex geo-political Pandora’s box that is the middle east is boiled down to “Iraq is claiming Kuwait is not forgiving Iraqi Debt and it is stealing oil”.
Raja Menon makes a mockery of the story which had so much potential, instead he turns it into this heroic tale of one man’s crusade to save 170000 Indians. Even in doing that the Hero’s transformation is sudden and makes it seem implausible to say the least. Akshay Kumar turns in a wooden and incongruous performance. The liberties that Menon and his writing team take with the stories are too generous and make the Indian government and bureaucracy look inept and insensitive. Sure there may have been lapses but the evacuation mission was already underway using the military planes from Amman to India before the Indian embassy in Kuwait coordinated the evacuation of thousands of Indians in Kuwait as well. But it is not even the fictionalisation of the story which is such a big problem but the careless execution of the said fictional story which is unforgivable. Popcorn Patriotism is the easiest emotion there is to evoke when it comes to Bollywood cinema but Airlift fails even at that. The scene where the Indian Flag goes up at Amman airport also fails to evoke any sense of patriotism I had to try very hard to stifle a snigger at how corny the execution was.
The movie cannot seem to make its mind up about what tone it wants to maintain. For a story as serious as this it seems to rely too much on cheap laughs which are majorly delivered by Inaamulah Haq who plays Iraqi general Major Khalaf Bin Zayd who two years ago was on personal security detail to Ranjit when he visited Baghdad – he loves conversing in Hindi and seems to be channelling Asrani’s Angrezo ke Zamaane ke Jailor. Prakash Belawadi who plays George Kutty who seemingly typifies the annoying Indian uncle who loves to do nothing but play an armchair critic gets an unnecessarily long screen time. Every time he is on the screen you know something obnoxious is going to come out of his mouth, while others in the theatre seemed to find something funny I couldn’t wait for him to actually be blown up by the Iraqi army. Unfortunately he survives and gets to redeem himself by manner of a side hug when boarding the flight to India.
A poorly written script, a terrible screenplay and inept direction are the reasons what brings this movie down. The actors do nothing special to lift the movie to something that could be deemed acceptable. For all the potential that this movie held Airlift unfortunately suffers from mid-air turbulence, crashes and burns.
First time director Ritesh Batra directs Irrfan Khan and new comer Nimrat Kaur in The Lunchbox. Lunchbox has been garnering rave reviews all around the festival circuits and flooring the critics across the board. It also created quite a furor when Lunchbox which was considered a frontrunner in the race to be India’s official entry to the Oscar was denied the chance and it was handed over to a little known Gujarati movie. Having seen the trailer and how impressed I was with the trailer I was about ready to join the voices of righteous indignation even before the movie began expecting to see a gem.
The Lunchbox is the story of Saajan Fernandez (such an interesting name which is not explored in the movie) played by the multi-faceted Irrfan Khan who is nearing the end of his 35-year long service at a government office. It is the story of the ever suffering Ila played by new comer Nimrat Kaur who shuttles between getting her daughter ready to getting the dabba ready for the courier to pick it up to be delivered to her husband. The story is about how these two ordinary individuals through curious circumstances come to establish a relationship established over hand written notes exchanged via the titular Lunchbox.
The story is also that of Shaikh played by the irrepressible Nawazuddin Siddiqui brought in to replace the retiring Fernandez and that of Mrs. Deshpande as voiced by the immediately recognizable Bharati Achrekar (Mrs. Radhika Wagle) the friendly neighborhood aunty who is always at hand to provide advice or a bottle of masala to spice up Ila’s marriage.
There are a lot of good intentions and a well-meaning story and a lot of subtle nuances that Batra tries to infuse in this slow moving romance story but they were lost on me and my viewing company because of the insistence on staying away from the clichés that they ended up being indie-movie clichés of the worst sorts. Take for instance the communication between Ila and Mrs. Deshpande which happens without the audience even once seeing Mrs. Deshpande. It is in improbable that with the husband in the living room Ila would shout on top of her voice to communicate to MRs Deshpande who lives on a floor above hers and trying to muffle the sound by a running tap so that the husband doesn’t over hear the conversation. A more realistic and naturalistic portrayal would’ve been to have Mrs. Deshpande’s kitchen window be a few feet away from that of Ila’s so that the ladies could gossip and still be able to pass the jars of Masala across – a reality in the claustrophobic metropolis that is the financial capital of the country.
The actors are all very competent and no one gives any single reason to complain about. The intensity is in Irrfan’s eyes and so is the vulnerability. Nimrat Kaur puts in a believable performance with understated presence that never once seems out of place in any scenario. Nawazuddin is a man with the midas touch – every role that he takes on has his distinguishable stamp, even here as the earnest Shaikh he does a wonderful job of being equal parts endearing and equal part annoying. I wish he was given a meatier role to flesh out his interactions with Irrfan.
Problems I had with the movie have to do with the camera work and how the finished product appears. The trailer had a very clean fresh and crisp vibe, the visuals had a young energy to it even though they were filmed in government offices with cabinets burdened under thousands of files and tracking shots of the dabbawalas through Mumbai locals. The scenes in the movie look tired and washed out as if they are lacking in energy of any type. The colors of the city are washed out to be a monochromatic beige palette. The pacing of the movie is far too slow to allow for the audience to feel a sense of urgency of the relationship based on notes exchanged via a incorrectly addressed tiffin. And when the climax comes about it is so anti-climactic with the will they won’t they end that I wish I was watching Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili where the fate of Jaya Bachchan is left to the audience to decide.
Having seen this movie I don’t think I can justifiably be indignant or angry about it not being sent in as India’s official selection to the Oscars for foreign Language feature film category. I am angrier that this movie is getting so much more mileage than Ship of Theseus which was a far better movie than this one and the one movie which I’d be proud to have represent India at the Academy Awards.
If you want to watch what the hype is about, go give this movie a watch – there is nothing particularly bad about this movie and it could even be mildly entertaining if you are luckier than I was when it came to a juvenile audience.