Airlift begins inauspiciously, with a desultory dance number that’s lifted from Cheb Khaled’s Didi in the first 10 minutes. Remarkably, director Rajakrishna Menon hardly puts a foot wrong after that. From the party, the scene shifts to a labour camp, with workers preparing for bed. Suddenly, there’s an explosion. The camera pulls out, and in a long, extended shot, we see fires burning and tanks rolling over the hill. This is Kuwait in 1990, and though the people there don’t know it yet, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has just invaded.

Trapped in Kuwait are more than a hundred thousand Indians—many of them labourers who have come to work in the Gulf. And as business tycoon Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar) soon discovers, even the ones with wealth and influence have no immediate way out of the country. In bargaining for safe passage for his wife (Nimrat Kaur) and daughter, the previously hard-headed Katyal finds himself negotiating for the safety of his employees, and gradually, for the entire Indian population in Kuwait. Soon, all 170,000 are holed up in a makeshift camp, with Katyal trying to stir the Indian authorities into action while keeping the Iraqis calm.

Though Katyal is a fictional composite, the broad events depicted in Airlift really did happen. In fact, the eventual evacuation—achieved with the help of Air India aircraft—was the largest in history. Menon is smart enough to realize that this story basically sells itself, and that he would serve it best by removing as much commercial flotsam from its path as he possibly can. He succeeds, to the tune of two-and-a-half songs and a brief fight scene—this, in an Akshay Kumar movie! The rest is solid, economical mainstream direction, with especially judicious use made of the long take (watch out for the scene where Katyal is driving through occupied Kuwait).

As sometimes happens when the overall picture is agreeable, little blips register more than they normally would. Prakash Belawadi is a welcome sardonic screen presence, but the needling character he’s playing has no real purpose beyond making Katyal seem even more like a saint. Inaamulhaq’s Iraqi major is a few beats away from Austin Powers. The songs, few as they are, have no business being there. That’s about it, though. This is how it ought to be more often—a mainstream movie with a list of grouses you can list on the fingers of one hand. Not to mention that this is a film destined to end with flag-waving (literal flag-waving, as it turns out) but one that is nonetheless shot through with a healthy dose of scepticism.

While in no way diminishing close to a dozen excellent supporting turns—Kumud Mishra’s South Block bureaucrat in particular is beautifully written and played—this is undeniably Kumar’s film. Though he has shown a gift for well-made comedy in the past, dramatic roles haven’t really come his way. The temptation to own each scene must have been strong here, but he spends most of his screen time holding back, allowing us to appreciate Katyal’s quiet, reasonable authority. It’s this restraint that makes his occasional lapses into despair or panic so believable.

Airlift released in theatres on Friday.

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