Film director Raja Krishna Menon clearly likes to push himself to the limit.
Having previously helmed small, off-beat films like the delightfully quirky ‘Barah Aana’ – a tale of a bunch of impoverished men who kidnap and hold middle-class citizens of a Mumbai suburb for ransom – and ‘Bas Yun Hi’ – a Bangalore-based love story with a Butterfly Effect-like twist, Menon’s taken the leap to a mainstream Bollywood drama with a huge star and inspired by an even bigger event.
‘Airlift’ tells the extraordinary story of the evacuation of tens of thousands of Indian migrant workers from the Gulf region following Saddam Hussein’s Blitzkrieg-like invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
The film stars Akshay Kumar as Ranjit Katyal, a wealthy Kuwait-based businessman of Indian origin who helps coordinate the safe passage of more than 170,000 Indians from Kuwait to the relative safety of Amman, Jordan and ultimately back home to India.
What makes the story all the more remarkable – quite apart from the sheer scale of the evacuation – is that it was conducted by a government infamous for its foot-dragging and which was in utter turmoil at home as well as the fact that the biggest airlift of civilians in history to Air India, an organization which has long rivalled the Indian government for inefficiency.
The UKAsian caught up with Menon to find out more about the story and jumping into the big leagues.
From making small, independent films, you’ve made a huge leap and taken on a monster of a film. What’s been the best and craziest things about the process?
As with anything there’s loads of good and bad. The best thing, I think, is that my previous films were written, produced, directed and essentially touted door-to-door by me. It was a real struggle. With this it’s so much easier because I’ve got a great studio and amazing people doing that for me! At least, ensuring that it gets to the cinemas and is out there for people to see.
The scariest part is that there’s so much hype and so many expectations regarding the film that the pressure can be unbearable sometimes. But you get used to it.
How did you come across the story and what was so compelling about it for you as a filmmaker?
I grew up in Kerala and being from that part of the world you invariably know someone who works in the Gulf or know someone who knows or is related to someone who works in the Gulf. So back in 1990 when this actually happened, I was acutely aware of the impact that it was having on families. People had lost loved ones and life savings and much else besides. But the story itself was relegated in the news because it was a time of political turmoil in the country. It was only ten or fifteen years later that I happened across an article that really brought home the enormity of what had happened. 170,000 people, 488 commercial flights travelling from Kuwait to Jordan, which was about 1000 kilometres away and through Iraq as well and then bringing these people back home, it suddenly hit me what an enormous achievement it was for our country. And the first question that came to mind was why was this not celebrated and marked and not spoken about that much? Why was this not the first thing that we are talking about all the time? And why hasn’t a movie being made about this?
It was akin to the Berlin Airlift or the evacuation from Dunkirk for India isn’t it? Why has it passed under the radar so much?
I think there were two reasons: the first being that this happened at a time in 1990 when we had a new Prime Minister, V P Singh who had come in and there was the Mandal Commission agitation so politically there was much happening. That first government lasted for just eight months and the one that succeeded it lasted half of that. Secondly the airlift happened before CNN started bringing the war on to our TV sets – the beginning of 24-hour rolling news. There was of course no internet and the media was not the omnipresent entity that we have today which helps shape people’s memories. The hope with the film is that it will get people talking and exploring this unforgettable triumph of our country.
Given that it’s a forgotten episode, how did you manage to piece together the story and write the script? And how was it received by the Bollywood establishment?
The script was the most difficult part. There’s no official account of what occurred and so I would imagine that this is the first real account of what took place which placed a lot of responsibility on me to make it as authentic as possible. At the same time you’re making a mainstream film so it needs to be entertaining whilst informing people as well. A lot of the source information was from newspaper articles and clippings and small bits and pieces. There were some notes that officials had written down as well, little home videos people had made and of course the conversations that I had with people who managed to escape. The problem then is that everyone’s view is myopic so to go through the information I had and put together a cohesive narrative was really difficult. It took me ten years. Once it happened it was a very exciting script which had all the necessary ingredients. I’ve been very fortunate in that I only had to narrate the film to the producers and actors once and they were all on board. I think above all, the time is right in that the country is ready for this kind of cinema. The stars aligned.
Another thing that’s worked really well in the run-up to the release is a vintage piece of marketing. The film’s main character Ranjit Katyal – played by Akshay Kumar – doesn’t exist.
Yes, he’s a figment of my imagination. It wasn’t planned that some media outlets began to report that he was based on a real-life character. He’s an amalgamation of three or four people who orchestrated this entire enterprise. There were two people foremost and a few others who helped. They’ve been named at the end of the film. There were a group of businessmen who took it upon themselves to ensure that these 170,000 people stranded in Kuwait got out safe so the actions that Ranjit Katyal takes in the film are actually based on the actions that were taken by these real life individuals which makes it all the more remarkable. The character and his emotional journey is my imagination as to what someone like that in a position like that would go through.
Above all else it’s a story about identity?
It’s a human story about a man called Ranjith Katyal who is actually quite cynical about his connection to India because he’s essentially Kuwaiti – that’s where he’s lived and it’s the place that’s shaped his life. But he’s then put in a situation which makes him wake up and think about what he’s doing with his life. And realizing that the only reason he’s alive is because he’s Indian. He then goes through a process of realizing what home means and identity means what is that intangible feeling that connects you to your homeland and to India specifically. That’s really the story of the film. The backdrop is the Kuwait war. Because the evacuation is such a giant achievement. I hope it resonates with people.
‘Airlift’ is in cinemas January 22.