31 January 2016

Lifted Loosely from Life

My Mirror column today:

True heroes behind Airlift are more super than its star, but babus aren't really the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Raja Krishna Menon's Airlift, which depicts the evacuation of 1,76,000 Indians from Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, is a rare film to emerge from the Hindi film industry. For one, it is a period film about an event that took place quite recently - 25 years ago is not long in historical time - and yet has been almost completely forgotten. Second, it is a film that tugs at patriotic heartstrings without having to unite us against an enemy: its best bits depict the panic of a population stuck in another country's war. And third, despite its narrative celebration of one man's heroism (backed by casting a major Bollywood star like Akshay Kumar), the screenplay crafted by Raja Menon, Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah and Rahul Nangia is never bombastic. This in itself, in these times of fist-pumping jingoism, is something to be thankful for.

But Airlift plays fast and loose with the facts. In a detailed 2011 interview with the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (IFAJ), K.P. Fabian, who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) during the First Gulf War, has described the complicated logistics of the actual evacuation, demanding multi-level cooperation between Indian ministries, diplomats in Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan, and the governments of these countries. He talks of how a Cabinet Sub-Committee was formed, consisting of representatives of External Affairs, Civil Aviation, Finance and Defence Ministries, and headed by IK Gujral, then India's Minister of External Affairs. "[T]hanks to the excellent rapport between the MEA and Civil Aviation Ministry, we did not waste time in routine writing of notes," Fabian has said. "For example, if there was a message from our Embassy in Amman that there were four thousand evacuees, all that I had to do was to make a call to the Secretary or the Joint Secretary concerned in the Civil Aviation Ministry. I could be sure that the necessary number of planes would leave in hours."

This account could not be more at odds with the film's version of events, in which the Indian government's efforts are minimal, and spearheaded by a lone bureaucrat who isn't even in the Gulf Division. The mild-mannered Sanjeev Kohli (nicely played by Kumud Mishra) just happens to pick up the phone when Ranjit Katyal calls the MEA.

Of course, an interview in the Foreign Affairs Journal is likely to credit the bureaucracy over other agencies. But KP Fabian's extraordinarily fine-grained account of an operation that took place 21 years before the interview suggests that he and other bureaucrats did have a much greater role to play in getting those hundreds of Air India flights off the ground than the film would have us believe. Gujral, too, took a strong interest, his Kuwait visit 12 days after the invasion even becoming a way for some Indian citizens to return. It seems rather grudging, then, for Airlift to depict the relevant minister as stalling for days, the whole MEA taking no interest in what has mysteriously become Kohli's cause.

The film does not entirely deny its fictiveness. It states, for instance, that the character of Ranjit Katyal (played by Akshay Kumar) is an amalgam of two real-life businessmen in Kuwait who were part of the effort: Mathunny Mathews and Harbhajan Vedi. Director Raja Menon has gone on record to explain why he did not make the much-better known Mathews, locally legendary by the name 'Toyota Sunny', the primary model for his character.

"As I have not lived in Kerala, I can't make a Malayalam film. From the first draft it was a Hindi film and for that I picked the North Indian character." Unsurprising though this choice may appear at first glance, it also seems a pity, because recent interviews with Mathews' family members (in the wake of Airlift's release) make it clear that the film's narrative draws a great deal on Mathews' real-life efforts. Setting up a camp for Indians in the premises of a school, for instance, or planning for the movement from Kuwait to Jordan: these were real things Mathews did.

But the film loses out on the specificity of Mathews' experience. The communication Mathews kept up with the Indian authorities, for instance, was not on landline phones but on HAM radio. The hundreds of private buses used to ferry people to Amman - seen many times in the film without explanation - could only be organised by Mathews' effective negotiating, in which his auto industry experience was crucial. The cinematic need for a heroic figure is understandable, but why flatten real details to create a generic one?

The film also makes it seem that the Indian Mission in Kuwait upped and left to save themselves. In fact, Saddam Hussein had made it a condition of safe Indian evacuation that all high-ranking diplomats should first leave Kuwait. The only senior bureaucrat left was the head of the Tea Board, Ashoke Kumar Sengupta. Made Officer-in-Charge of the Indian Mission from August 20 to November 7, 1990, Sengupta became an unlikely hero. His task was to handle the paperwork and selection of candidates to go to Amman, dealing with everything from requests to store personal gold to women faking pregnancies to get priority. Sengupta is another real-life hero whose story the film ignores.

The makers of Airlift have been unapologetic, saying that a fiction feature cannot be tied to facts. Menon has said that the film for him is about "[Katyal's] journey and his realization that finally it (India) is home". But given how little "India" does to help him and his fellow-refugees, the film's rousing patriotic climax seems truly fictitious.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 31 Jan 2016.

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