My mother’s brothers built their fortune in Kuwait. Both of them had respectable government jobs back in Kerala. One worked at the Inspector General’s Office and the other with the State Public Service Commission. As the salary was not sufficient to lead a decent life, they went to Kuwait after taking long leave from the Government. Every visit of theirs from Kuwait was celebrated by all relatives and friends as they brought several bags full of goodies. It was feast every day at home till the day they left after their holidays. Every dinar earned was spent for the happiness of the near and dear ones and they boarded the flight back to Kuwait to earn more. For most Keralites, gulf countries were like 'land of Canaan where milk and honey flow’.
Their dreams shattered on 2nd August 1990 as Iraqi forces stormed the streets of Kuwait under the leadership of Saddam Hussain. The lives of about 1,80,000 Indians were under threat and future looked bleak for them. They lived in uncertainty, insecurity and hardship since the day Saddam declared Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq. Their relatives in India were worried and prayed for them. Only one thing made them strong in spite of all difficulties: The mutual care and support of all Indians. Mr Mathew, Chairman of a large company was one of the few Indians who coordinated the evacuation efforts with the Indian government after overseeing their transport by road to Amman. He was the last Indian to leave Kuwait after 487 Air India flights carried the stranded Indians in a span of 59 days. My uncles also arrived leaving everything there: bank balances, household goods, cars and their funds with the employer.
Raja Krishna Menon, directed the movie ‘Air Lift’ (released on 22nd January, 2016) after preparing the basic script with the help of three others after researching the events during the invasion of Kuwait and after a series of interactions with people who witnessed the events. Akshay Kumar played the role of Ranjit Katyal, the Indian businessman who volunteered to coordinate the evacuation efforts. The story is about the challenges faced by him in his mission. Apart from the obstacles created by the Iraqi Major, he had tough time convincing his company employees, Indians gathered at his office seeking help and also his own wife about his strategies to get out of the violence stricken Kuwait city. Undoubtedly, the theme is exciting for the lovers of patriotic films and the movie is an engrossing one for most viewers.
When a real incident is converted into a movie, the most important challenge would be how to make it a thriller, an entertaining stuff or one that discloses a secret hitherto unknown to many. The movie doesn’t provide any of these. Unlike what is usually done by directors in similar genre, the director didn’t indulge in exaggeration, lie, or introduction of a sub-story to please the viewers. But in order to gratify the commercial interests, he inserted songs at inappropriate junctures. He could have done away with songs and dances, except in the period before the invasion. Another challenge of a movie based on real incidents is not to omit any vital ingredient while plotting it as a story. Since, many who witnessed and experienced the happenings are still alive, the movie would be subjected to a critical appraisal by them if there are major deviations.
Apart from narrating the bureaucratic and political bottlenecks at the level of the Indian government, ministry of external affairs, and the embassies, it would have been more interesting if the movie had focused on the decision making challenges at the diplomatic levels. The movie tried to project that the issue was not of any concern for the government or for the foreign minister, which is not fully true. The movie seems to give the credit for one of the largest evacuations by a single country of its people to a single Indian businessman (the character Ranjit Katyal) rather than giving the Indian government its due.
K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador of India, who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs when the Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, coordinated the repatriation of over 176,000 Indians. For an oral history project of Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, he narrated the events very clearly. Following excerpts would throw light on the role played by the Indian government:
‘Immediately after I received first intimation of the event, I rang up my immediate boss Additional Secretary (Political)) I.P. Khosla, Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey, and Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral. The immediate next step was to draft a statement conveying our views and apprehensions. Uppermost in our mind at that moment was the plight of our people. In that statement, we called upon Iraq to withdraw. Iraq’s action of invading a sovereign state was definitely a violation of international law. …We decided to urgently arrange repatriation of our nationals. Additional Secretary I.P. Khosla and Minister I.K. Gujral went to Amman from Europe, where they were visiting, and I joined them there from Delhi. I flew by an Indian Air Force aircraft (IL 76) with some communication equipment. Minister Gujral met Saddam personally. At the place where the Indian community had assembled, there was no stage or podium or even a raised platform. So Minister Gujral stepped onto a chair and climbed onto the bonnet of a jeep! The assemblage was really angry, and remained hostile even after he started to speak. But in less than three minutes Minister Gujral made them shout “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (Victory to Mother India). This was indeed a remarkable feat, not fully recognized by the media or the general public. We decided that the only way to get our people out was through airlift. A very small number of people did come back by boats and other means. To arrange all this, a Cabinet Sub-Committee was formed, consisting of representatives of External Affairs, Civil Aviation, Finance and Defence Ministries. Minister Gujral chaired it. Normally, a Cabinet Sub-committee is serviced by the Cabinet Secretariat. T.N.R. Rao, Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, was very cooperative and I, as Joint Secretary in the Gulf Division of the MEA, started preparing the agenda and the minutes, of course with Minister Gujral’s approval. I.P. Khosla supervised. The Cabinet Secretariat was fully kept in the picture. We did not have to go through the normal time-consuming channels and it did help. The important thing was that thanks to the excellent rapport between the MEA and Civil Aviation Ministry, we did not waste time in routine writing of notes. For example, if there was a message from our Embassy in Amman that there were four thousand evacuees, all that I had to do was to make a call to the Secretary or the Joint Secretary concerned in the Civil Aviation Ministry. I could be sure that the necessary number of planes would leave in hours. The Secretary, Civil Aviation, Mr. Ganesan, deserves our thanks for his speedy reaction to our various requests.’ (ORAL HISTORY: Biggest Ever Air Evacuation in History, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 7, No. 1, January-March, 2011, 93-107)
The above facts give a different picture about the actual scenario which was quite different from what was projected in the movie.
While the performance of Akshay Kumar is commendable, there is nothing great as far as other actors are concerned. In fact, performance of the Iraqi Major and some of the key employees of company looked amateurish. In a movie showcasing a war and related trauma, there is enough scope for good cinematography and creative editing. This has not been properly utilized. Emotions are not presented and captured in a manner that can impress the viewers.
With all these flaws, this movie is a one-time watch because of the relevance of the theme. An ordinary Indian living in India cannot imagine the trauma of a person who is stranded in a politically unstable and war-torn alien country. He may not know how in such situations people react, governments respond and relationships mend or break. Therefore, apart from the patriotic spirit the movie possibly invoke, it would also give an insight to the larger sociological context in which migrant populations live and cope up across the world.
My uncles, though very disappointed as they arrived back in India leaving their job and possessions in Kuwait, decided to join back in their jobs in the state government. Meanwhile the news of the withdrawal of Iraqi forces reached and they got ready to leave to their Canaan land. They went back, lived there for many years, and earned so much to fulfil their dreams to become a respectable, affluent gulf returnee in the God’s own country to live in peace and self-respect. In the end, US had the last laugh!© Sibichen K Mathew. Views are personal.