Raja Krishna Menon on ‘Airlift’: “First time you’ll see a vulnerable Akshay Kumar”

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This week will see the release of Akshay Kumar and Nimrat Kaur starrer ‘Airlift’ which is a war thriller which focuses on the evacuation of Indians based in Kuwait during the Iraq-Kuwait war in 1990. Director Raja Krishna Menon – if the first promos are anything to go by – has created a film that promises great performances amidst a story which hasn’t been seen on celluloid previously, and which has been inspired by real events.

BizAsia had the unique opportunity to speak with Menon about his experiences making the film.

Raja Krishna Menon 340x

You’re just a few days away from the release of ‘Airlift’. How do you feel?

As of now, it’s still sinking in I think (laughs). We’ve been rushing around trying to get everything ready… the deliveries, the international press going out. I think I’m feeling excited but it’s also a little bit of getting the film out there, people figuring out if they’re going to like it or not. There’s always a bit of tension and nervousness.

You’ve got an ad filmmaking background. Did you always want to make films in Bollywood?

Well, I’ve made two feature films before ‘Airlift’. They small, independent films. I’ve always wanted to tell a long-form of stories. Ad films is also an exciting place to be. My background has also allowed me to pick and choose the films I want to do. The ad films keep the fire burning as it were.

You have a personal connection to the story ‘Airlift’ talks about because you know people who were there at the time. Was this your inspiration to want to bring the story to the screen?

Well, there are many reasons as to why this film is important to me. I knew of the film because I’m from Kerala and a lot of people from there work in the Middle East. I was therefore acutely aware of the problems that they faced through that. The second thing was when I realised the enormity of what had transpired in 1990 – the logistical nightmare it must’ve been, the idea of 170,000 people stuck in a problem not of their creation and the government coming together. It was just the whole idea of putting this evacuation together. When I realised how big it was it kind of struck me that this might be the single greatest, the biggest achievement post independence that India has to celebrate. That, for me, was a very important aspect to drive the film. So, there are multiple reasons and inspirations.

What would you say was the most difficult part of the journey for you as the director?

I think it was very important for me that the story be authentic and to get as much detail into it so that we transport it back to Kuwait in 1990. Also to take it back to the actual siege and the war itself and to show people how it would’ve been if they were in the midst of this. If you look at it from a physical and cinematic point of view then those were the difficulties. From a script or a narration point of view, aside from keeping it true and authentic, to keep it entertaining so that people would want to watch it. I think it was just striking the balance between the two – how I would tell the story too. I wouldn’t say it was difficult as such but it was something we worked very hard at – keeping it real, true and honest and, at the same time, keeping it at a level where people would enjoy watching all through.

What would you want the audiences to take away from the story?

There are a few things. I think, as Indians, there’s a strong sense of cynicism that’s crept into our mindsets. So, at the end of it if the audience can go back and say that this seemingly possible and almost miraculous evacuation could be orchestrated by an Indian government for its people then we should begin to believe a little more that we can change things and things can happen now.

Airlift sets - Akshay Kumar, Raja Krishna Menon 340x

Did you always want Akshay Kumar and Nimrat Kaur in the lead roles?

We knew that the film had a certain size and that it required a certain star power to be made. Akshay happened to come into the frame when we were writing the film. I knew we needed an actor who had that kind of hold where people would believe that he could lead people through something. I needed someone with gravitas and someone who could fit into that so Akshay was a natural choice. He was easier to get on board that I had imagined he would be; I narrated the idea to him and he said he wanted to do the film. There was no need to think of anyone else. As for Nimrat, I wanted someone who hadn’t been in mainstream cinema too much and someone who kind of embodied the spirit of the character, Amrita Katiyal – someone who’s spirited, who has her own opinions and whose identity in the film is not Mrs Katiyal but of her own self. As an actress, there’s no need to talk about Nimrat’s talent. Fortunately for me both of them agreed to do the film and I never really needed to think beyond that.

From the trailer, the songs and the looks of the film, it feels like the audiences will see a “different” Akshay Kumar. Is this going to be the case?

Yes. Very clearly, from the onset of this film, we decided that we didn’t want to see Akshay Kumar in the film but Akshay Kumar as Ranjit Katiyal in the film. We worked very hard to try and achieve that. We spent close to a month every morning at 5:30am just discussing who this man is for a couple of hours, what is his character, what would make him do the things he did, what would he eat, what did he do there when he first landed in Kuwait, how did he make his millions, how did he get to this point. So we got enough into the character and what you will see for the first time – I might be wrong – is a vulnerable Akshay Kumar. He’s a man who is playing a real hero in life and someone who goes through the emotional trauma of being in that situation. I think you’ll see a side of him where he is vulnerable, he’s weak. Sometimes he’s strong and sometimes he’s questioning, he has doubt. He’s a hero because of these very imperfections that make him human. I think you’ll see something that’s quite different.

With your background and sensibilities, what would you say is the most positive thing you’ve brought to the film as its director?

I don’t really think of films as projects. For me, the whole idea of a film is being interested in telling a story in the best way possible and, because I don’t come with the baggage of being a part of mainstream Bollywood, I think the way I visualise is different to how Bollywood normally does. You do get influenced by the things around you but I think I’m less influenced than others. The idea was to make a mainstream, commercial Hindi movie and one that I would want to watch myself. I don’t know because I’m very close to it but I hope that we’ve managed that.

Airlift sets- Akshay, Raja 340x

What is next for you? Would you like to stick to the same genre in the future?

One of my friends looked at my work and asked me if I was “genre-agnostic”. It’s a term I love. There’s one genre I can’t do which is high fashion and glamour or rom-coms. To be honest, it’ll be anything that excites me. If there’s a story I get excited about and feel I can tell well then I’ll do it. In terms of what’s next, I haven’t actually made any decisions yet. I’m working and thinking of a few things but I really don’t have the time so it’ll be post the release of ‘Airlift’ that I’ll zone in on which project I want to do.

BizAsia would like to thank Raja Krishna Menon for taking the time to talk to us. ‘Airlift’ will arrive at cinemas on 22nd January.

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