Raja Krishna Menon is riding high on success with Airlift, his third feature film which is also the first 100-crore grosser of 2016, shattering previous records at the domestic box office. He has been working in advertising for almost two decades now, and managed to find the time to make two feature films in between. Ad film-makers often get so tied up in the process that even though they might have feature dreams, they rarely find the time to translate them to the big screen. Menon’s feature film debut, Bas Yun Hi, released in 2003 and starring Nandita Das and Purab Kohli, failed to leave a mark on the audience or the box office. He made his second feature, Baarah Aana, starring Naseeruddin Shah and Vijay Raaz, in 2009, and it suffered the same fate.
“After Baarah Aana, which I am very proud of but which didn’t do well, I felt the stories I wanted to tell had no takers and I had creatively hit a bottom. So, my wife and I took our son out of school and backpacked through Latin America for over six months,” says Menon, in an interview to The Indian Express. “Some time after I came back, in 2012, I noticed a shift in the film scene, but I still didn’t think anyone would want to make Airlift. I approached Nikhil Advani with another script, but he instinctively knew it wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s when I told him about Airlift. After that, it was a breeze.”
What were the challenges making a film like Airlift, which, though the 1990 Kuwait evacuation is a crucial part of modern Indian history, has barely any documentation which can be used for research? The big question also is, in a film like this, how much should be fact and how much should be fiction? Most of the information that the film’s team collected was from people’s personal experiences, but Menon was aware of the fact that personal experiences can be very biased. His team comprised active journalists like Priya Seth, a war photographer, who sourced a lot of videos from the time. The production design team collected images and other visual documentation, while the rest of the crew dealt with details like tanks, choppers and costumes of the time.
It must be said that Airlift released alongside two rather brainless films (it was sandwiched between Kya Kool Hai Hum 3 and Mastizaade), so the lack of any real competition helped bring the audiences to the theatres too. Airlift has sailed past the Rs 100-crore mark, and has suddenly become a very important film for the year. Maybe Menon just needed the right time and the right star to carry his story. While Akshay Kumar is big, his personality does not overpower the film, and along with Nimrat Kaur, the duo is the perfect foil for a film of this genre.
The level of detailing in the film is impressive, and it is commendable to see such immaculate production design in an Indian film. What is also heartening is that, unlike most other films of the patriotic-thriller genre, Airlift does not become needlessly jingoistic — there is no black and- white characterisation or forced partisanship in the narrative. The director chooses to explore the reality of the situation and not get into unnecessary emotional soppiness — a common Bollywood problem — in the storytelling, and this helps Airlift soar. If Menon has found his canvas, we’re definitely looking at a director whose future work should be anticipated with keen interest.