Raja Krishna Menon on ‘Airlift’, Akshay Kumar and the biggest human evacuation in history

January 21, 2016

Raja Krishna Menon grew up in Kerala, where politics is dinner table conversation and Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar are household names. The film-maker says this background not only drew him to the subject of his new film “Airlift”, but also helped him tell the story.

“Airlift”, Menon’s third and biggest film, is based on real-life events during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when India evacuated around 170,000 of its citizens stranded in Kuwait.

Menon spoke to Reuters about how he came across the story, and why lead actor Akshay Kumar plays a combination of characters taken from real life.

Handout photo of Raja MenonWhen did you first hear about the incident your film is based on?
I got a fleeting idea when this was happening, because I am from Kerala and I heard about it then. I never took it that seriously at that point. In 2003, I read an article about this and how India evacuated 170,000 people. I thought to myself that there couldn’t be anything bigger than this. How do you evacuate so many people? There are some countries with a smaller population than this. So I started looking around for information and realized that this is the biggest human evacuation in history. But no one was talking about what India did.

Why weren’t we talking about it?
There was no television. Satellite television as we know it now didn’t exist (in India). The media as we know it wasn’t around. Politically, this was the time of the VP Singh government and there was so much political turmoil. Thirdly, Iraq and India have always been friends. The rebuilding of Iraq after the Iran war was largely done by Indian companies. So India actually never made a statement about the Kuwait war. The bureaucracy was only focused on getting our people out of there. Today, there would be a camera and reporters outside the airport when these people came home. But then these guys just walked out and went home. There was local media interest, but it never escalated.

How did you piece this story together then?
When I realized the enormity of what happened, I knew there was a film in it, or a book at least. And I thought a film was the best medium, because I am a film-maker, obviously. It took me a lot (of time) to understand why someone hadn’t already done it. Surely, I wasn’t the only one to know about this, so why wouldn’t you … To me, this is India’s biggest achievement post independence. As a country, and what she did for her people, there is nothing bigger than this. But in 2004, I was in no position to make this film, nor was the industry ready for a film like this. Still, I kept looking for information. Over the years, I found people. A guy I was making a commercial with told me he was there. He was a four-year-old when it happened. I was at a party and a friend introduced me to a woman who was in Kuwait at the time. Also, if you focus and search really hard, you will find articles about this.

Handout still from the film "Airlift"

Handout still from the film “Airlift”

Who is Ranjit Katyal (the character played by Akshay Kumar) based on?
No one. He does not exist. What happened at that point was that a group of people came together – there was a gentleman called Sunny Mathews, there was a gentleman called Vedi and they formed an unofficial committee. They knew Indians were not safe. The average age of the soldiers who attacked Kuwait was 16 to 18. These were kids who were born into war and didn’t know another life. They walked into the richest per capita city in the world. It was like Alibaba’s cave for them. Women were being raped, people were being looted. They didn’t care if you were Indian or not. There is a 2-in-1 (audio system) I want and I like the watch on your hand. That’s it. A large percentage of the Indian population didn’t know what hit them. They didn’t even have papers, because in Kuwait your papers are with your employer. It was a lost bunch of people with no leadership. They were rudderless. So I picked my main people and amalgamated them into one person.

Why couldn’t it have been three people? Did it have to be one hero?
Because for me, the film is a human story about one man who has given up on his home country and has decided the place that has allowed him to make his fortune is his country. His journey and his realization that finally it (India) is home. You can disown whatever you want but you cannot change where you come from – and to me, that is an intangible. There is a safety at home, something that you may not understand. And you’ll never be that first-class citizen elsewhere in the world – you could become a citizen or live your whole life there, it doesn’t make a difference. The story is about that search for the intangible or the finding of that intangible because of circumstances. For me that is the journey of this film, and that journey and conflict happens to be set in this war. And the realization comes from this feeling that you cannot expect any country to do more than this for you. So if I had made this about two or three people, the film would have been about how they got evacuated and I would have diluted my story.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay, Tony @TonyTharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports.
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