HOW accurately is a mere movie expected to adhere to facts and history even if it claims to be set in a real, recent event – recent is defined here as something that took place in our adult lifetime. That question has arisen with the success of Airlift, young director Raja Menon’s new film, which tugged at our hearts on the eve of Republic Day with much patriotism and national spirit of unity in diversity. Surely, the return of more than 1.5 lakh Indian workers from Kuwait and Iraq was a remarkable Indian achievement and deserved a film. Some drama is also justified because of the sudden outbreak of that war and the crisis that hit mostly lower-middle class workers. But did it really have to be mythologised as much as it has been done in the film, particularly as it completely rewrites history with zero concern for facts?
The film shows that every government agency responded to the predicament of expatriate Indians with total callousness. These included the local embassies, where staff either ran away or (as in Baghdad) expressed helplessness. The External Affairs Minister too threw his hands up, saying his government was unstable, could fall any time and only the bureaucracy could do something to help as they were permanent. If India succeeded in bringing the stranded people back, it was because of the extra-ordinary initiative of some—in fact just two-and-a-half—individuals. Two being, of course the hero, Akshay Kumar or Ranjit Katyal and the other, Mr Kohli, Joint Secretary in the MEA whose office looks more modest than that of a clerk—joint secretary is actually a very high position, equal to a senior ambassador.
But never mind. Movies are not made about boring government systems and bureaucracies that work sometimes. They need crises, helplessness, drama and then characters, good or bad, who make the story. Bollywood is not the only one to exploit real events for fictional drama. Hollywood is often a bigger victim. Of the recent and celebrated releases, Argo and American Sniper are good examples. We have also seen some mythologies built successfully in the past around real events. The film Border, supposedly based on the 1971 battle of Longewala is another such example. The battle was indeed a remarkable chapter in the history of that war, but it was nothing like what was shown, at least not on land. The small contingent of Indian troops at Longewala post, under Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, performed a heroic role by staying put, warning the headquarters of the
Pakistani tank offensive and held it back, therefore, by making the attackers believe their strength was larger than in reality and also probably that the approaches to their position were heavily mined. This bought IAF time until first light to come in waves and destroy Pakistani armour. There was no fighting on the ground of any note and while Chandpuri richly deserved his Maha Vir Chakra, exploits of Sunny Deol, apparently playing him, would have only amused if not embarrassed him.
Now, we know no soldier fights in real life as Sunny Deol can in movies. But nor does anyone fight like Stallone or Schwarzenegger or Tom Cruise, so drama is fine. But the basic thread in Border was accurate and faithful to history. A tiny army unit with a big heart made the Pakistanis wait for the night and in the morning the IAF came and destroyed them, unopposed in the air. That is history, the rest was cinema.
Sadly, in trying to Sunny Deol-ise the Kuwait evacuation (sorry for using that metaphor, Akshay Kumar, but Deol is the original) Airlift has completely changed history. In the film, while the government washes its hands off and the minister says he is helpless, a local hero emerges, gets all Indians into camps, and then escorts them in a convoy 1,100 km through the Iraqi and Jordanian desert, even thrashing an Iraqi army picket led by a
Lieutenant Colonel, no less, on the way and leads fellow Indians triumphantly at the border checkpoint, not far from where Moses supposedly parted the seas and gave the call of "Let My People Go.”
Here are the brief facts. Kuwait fell on Aug 3, 1990. Within less than a week, Inder Kumar Gujral, our external affairs minister, was in Baghdad, the first foreign leader to reach there. He was cursed globally for embracing Saddam Hussein for the cameras. But he said to us later he had to do it to protect his people whose safety and evacuation Iraq guaranteed. He came to Kuwait, spoke to stranded Indians, took a few back with him in his IAF Il-76 and then organised the biggest airlift in the history of mankind. Our embassy in Baghdad found a bus contractor to move our people to Amman and Jordan had never closed its borders with Iraq. The first airlift took place on August 13, on the tenth day after the invasion and continued for 59 days until the last Indian wanting to return was back. About 10,000 stayed on in Kuwait, feeling safe with the Iraqis who were friendly to India and never consciously hurt an Indian.
This film, therefore, has zero resemblance to reality except that it steals a real event to build a Sunny Deol-style hyper-patriotic yarn. These are days when vigilantism is popular. The state and the system can do nothing, so a super Indian has to rise and fill in, until, the tricolour is unfurled to notes of Vande Mataram and we all have tears in our eyes.
Just a footnote: I covered that Gulf War for India Today magazine from beginning until the end, first bombings in Baghdad, Scuds in Israel and finally the liberation of Kuwait. Amman was the base for all outward travel as you could drive to both Baghdad and Jerusalem. We never heard of a character like Katyal. Of course there was Sunny Mathew, popularly known as Toyota Sunny because he had flourishing agencies for the car company, and a cultured gentleman called Mr Vedi who helped the Indian community get its act together and keep the evacuation smooth. In fact, Mr Vedi was brave enough to stay put. My photographer colleague Prashant Panjiar and I were fortunate to find him as we reached Kuwait just after liberation, with debris scattered, skies blackened with oil well fires and hulls of destroyed Iraqi tanks lying all over. He looked after us, fed us, pointed us to an abandoned house we could just break into, like everybody else—fortunately it had a deep freezer filled with food which we gratefully ate from. He told us many stories of the crisis. He and Sunny had been brave, good, rich Indians, but sadly there was no story to even vaguely resemble what we are celebrating these days.
And one more important aside. V.P Singh had just come to power on the Bofors campaign in the 1989 scam season. One of Rajiv Gandhi's controversial purchases was the Airbus-320 for Indian Airlines. After one crashed in Bangalore, V.P Singh grounded all 320s. But once the airlift became necessary, he had no choice but to let the plane be flown again and it proved to be a real workhorse. Finally, no pilots protested and there was no real danger flying to Amman. Queen Aaliyah airport remained open through the war and most international airlines continued their scheduled flights uninterrupted. The then Civil Aviation Minister Arif Mohammed Khan was on board the first Air India flight to land in Amman for the Airlift and Telecom Minister K.P. Unnikrishnan spent almost two months in Amman, helping out, particularly as a majority of workers were his fellow Malayalis.