I’m going to place a disclaimer here for myself from the get go of this review because I grew up in the United States and was raised mainly on American cinema despite being born in India and being of 100% Indian heritage. Perhaps it is this qualifier that will help the reader gain some perspective as to where I am coming from when I say that Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift is a film with many opportunities to evoke emotion through its inspirational story, but systematically rejects said opportunities and aims only for the low hanging fruits of cheap melodrama.
Melodrama as a means of rendering emotion within audiences is a trope of Indian cinema which has existed since time immemorial, sometimes to its brilliant benefit (Guru Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Raj Kapoor, early Mahesh Bhatt) and many times its colossal detriment (too many to name). But through different cultures, the ways of portraying emotions from pain, to joy, to anger are shaped not only by the culture of the people within that nation, but of the reception and communicative value from screen to audience that speaks the best. Perhaps it is the condition on which I was brought up as a filmgoer and film admirer, that makes it hard for me to take a film like Airlift seriously, when every sequence meant to depict the helpless tragedy and senseless death of those Indians and Kuwaiti’s trapped in Saddam’s hellfire, is a slow-motion shot of people crying or Akshay Kumar looking longingly in a very awkward stance with chest almost jutting out of his sleek dress shirt, or diatribes by characters one-upping each other with moral statements as if they were carefully written political speeches meant to stir a nation to their feet. These moments are nice as nationalistic set-pieces, and clearly by box office and critical raving, the Indian populace has been won over by them, but they hardly evoke more than an eye-roll and a sigh from me.
Perhaps it is growing up with American cinema that turned me away from such direct melodrama. American cinema has had its share of it sure, but at least since the era of my childhood, it has either been considered completely passé or, in the case of Douglas Sirk, looked upon through cinematic nostalgia as a classical relic of one auteur’s signature style (implemented in films like Far From Heaven not as actual tool for evoking feeling, but as a tool for remembrance of cinema that once was). In Indian cinema, it seems to be the easiest and thus, most utilized way to evoke emotion and its done in most instances where I expect more tact, effort and subtlety.
I always find myself questioning why filmmakers like Raja Krishna Menon feel compelled to spell everything out so obviously through melodrama, and use their camera to make sure absolutely nothing loses our sight and every proverbial socio-political stone is turned so that we don’t have any gray areas to discuss after the film is over. Airlift is the kind of film that, upon returning to a second time, there will be nothing that we discover anew that wasn’t seen upon first-time watching. To compare this film to an Argo and even more egregious and insulting, a Schindler’s List, is to say that this movie riveted or disturbed us in a way those films did, using similar effect to those films to depict the selflessness and sacrifice of individuals to save those less fortunate. But that’s not what I got. I’ve seen Argo, Schindler’s List, even Hotel Rwanda and the basic structural premise, stretched a bit, is all I could say with a straight face was in common between those three films and Airlift. If your thoughts right now are, “well it’s so unfair to compare Airlift to Schindler’s List” you’d be 100% correct. It’s horribly unfair, yet, a good amount of Indian critics have already done it.
Airlift is based on a story that screams for a film adaptation, and in our politically volatile world, a renewed Indian patriotism movement, and turmoil in the Middle East, it seems the right time to create a movie like this. To Menon’s credit, there are some sequences, especially the phone communications between Katiyal and the foreign ministry back in Delhi that ring not only true, but powerful in their criticism of bureaucracy. We see as the desperate calls keep ringing in the Ministry, employees start leaving for lunch. As one worker reaches for the phone, his friend, carrying a tiffin, juts him away signaling to him not to bother because they are officially on break. It’s these types of visual moments, unfettered by any overpowering cinematic music, or dialogue, or overexpression from actors, which make the best moments of Airlift… but they are few and far in between. The rest of the movie is rife with the same ingredients picked from numerous disaster films, aided by a hokey film score to pair with pained closeups of actors faces and the helpless lost look of children in their mother’s arms. Had no context been provided for these scenes, I’d have thought they were part of some NGO or Red Cross outreach infomercial asking for dollar-a-day donations.