This week’s big release Airlift has Akshay Kumar playing Ranjit Katyal, an influential businessman of Indian origin in Kuwait of the '90s. Katyal, the film shows, was instrumental in the evacuation of over a lakh Indians stranded in Kuwait when Iraq attacked that nation. Katyal is an enigmatic character, not just because of the daredevil operation the film associates him with but also because his very existence is shrouded in mystery. The 1990 evacuation mission involving nearly 500 Air India flights has found its way into Guinness Book of Records, as history’s largest civilian evacuation. Officially, the government has never confirmed or denied the existence of anyone fitting Katyal’s description.
Perhaps Katyal was a deep asset for India in Kuwait, in which case his identity is never to be officially acknowledged. Or, going by the fact that Airlift is after all a Bollywood flick, the character is perhaps altogether fictitious — merely created to accommodate superstar Akshay within the frame of a real-life thriller incident. Any which way Airlift, despite that question mark, brings to focus an important aspect of modern Indian history. Assuming someone like Katyal, who helped authorities during the operation, did exist, the film accounts a fascinating life. If biopics caught on in Bollywood a while back, Airlift is an unusual idea within that genre. The film tries working in a different space as a biopic than the safer options narrating lives of famous people.
From Gandhi and Bose to Bhagat Singh, from Milkha Singh to Mary Kom, and from Dawood Ibrahim to Charles Sobhraj, Bollywood has mostly preferred capturing life stories of people everyone already knew. Normally films such as Manjhi: The Mountain Man and Paan Singh Tomar, which tried highlighting uncommon lives of common people, have been in the minority.
Airlift seems like a big-budget boost to the idea. The story of an unknown Indian, who risked his life to help over a lakh Indians flee war-torn Kuwait, deserves to be told as much as any famous freedom fighter or sportstar.
If the film shows Bollywood is finally getting serious about highlighting lives less ordinary, coming up later this year are a few other such attempts. Watch out for Neerja. The film stars Sonam Kapoor as the brave flight attendant Neerja Bhanot, who was slain trying to save passengers from terrorists on board a Pan Am flight in 1986. Neerja went on to become India’s youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime military award for bravery.
It will also be interesting to see how Omung Kumar treats Sarbjit Singh’s story. Randeep Hooda plays Singh in Sarbjit, a film that treads controversy domain. It recounts the story of the man who claimed to be a farmer in a border village, whom Pakistan arrested as an Indian spy. Sarbjit finally died in prison, allegedly after a brutal attack by some Pakistani inmates.
Like the story of the unknown Indian in Airlift, Neerja and Sarbjit will take cinematic liberties. These films will tweak facts to suit box-office demands. But then all biopics do that. Importantly, beyond the hagiographic slant these films will make their subjects a little more celebrated and revered.