Akshay Kumar has been at pains to tell the world that his Airlift stands apart from Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winner Argo. The Bollywood actor pointed out the scale of the two covert operations in the respective films: Ben Affleck’s Hollywood film saved six Americans as opposed to 1.7 lakh Indians in Kuwait evacuation.
But however hard he may try, there is no way he can distinguish Airlift from Argo and here’s the latest similarity between the two: Both films are highly embroidered and fictionalized accounts of true incidents. We will not waste your time telling you how Raja Menon’s film is all gas and faff, Ministry of External Affairs did that already.
We will instead ask you why it even matters. The film worked for the taali-seeti crowd. Years after Border had your average cinemagoer come out all puffed up with the importance of being the citizen of a country which licked Pakistan in the battle of Longewala (lot of fiction in the film too, by the way), came Airlift. For a change, we didn’t have to rip up hand pumps from Pakistani soil to prove our patriotism. Neither did Bollywood scriptwriters dream up a Dawood Ibrahim or Hafiz Saeed arrest and deportation drama to get the jingoistic janta going.
Instead, Akshay Kumar and Menon sold us the messiah-like Katiyal who leads the hordes of Indians caught in the middle of a war, and possible future persecution, across the desert to safety and a new future. An uncharacteristically subtle performance from Akshay makes the fiction so much more believable. Menon, like Affleck, seems to have taken Mark Twain’s advice: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
So, there was no one man who can lay claim to being the real-life Katiyal. Instead, we had a sheepish looking IK Gujral hugging the then Iraq President Saddam Hussein and ensuring the safety of Indians in return. There was no nameless, faceless joint secretary singlehandedly ensuring that lakhs of Indians find their way back home either. Instead, Indian bureaucracy was coordinating a large-scale effort which needed multiple ministries to get involved.
Would Gujral and a bunch of bureaucrats made for a good, thrilling film? I would say, highly doubtful. Without the power dynamics, the action and shifts in relationship dealt with cleanly and efficiently, will people be queuing up to watch the film? What would Airlift be without the white-knuckled drive across the desert, the caricature-like Iraqi general threatening Katiyal and the unfurling of an Indian flag at the Aamman airport?
A documentary, at best. While that should definitely be made, it could never have the reach of a jingoistic Bollywood film which is just shy of making Rs 100 crore at the BO and thousands of Indians googling ‘Kuwait evacuation’.
Even MEA, scathing as it was about the film being “short on facts”, accepted the power of Bollywood. Irked over foreign ministry not getting its due in the film, its spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeted on Thursday, “@AirliftFilm: Great entertainment but rather short on facts.”
“Films often take liberties with actual events, with facts. And this particular film has... taken a lot of artistic liberties in the depiction of events as they actually happened in Kuwait in 1990,” he said in a recorded message. He should know, his novel was made into poverty porn, Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire. He also added, “We hope that the film will inspire the people to read about the actual events that took place.”
Watch: Airlift is an engaging story
So, Bollywood clocked another hit, Akshay got his patriotic stripes and young Indians are wiser about their country holding a Guinness record for evacuating 1.7 lakh people from a war-affected country. True, it is not authentic history but it made for riveting cinema. And that’s what Bollywood’s first priority is, for the rest, there are history books.
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