While pursuing his graduation in chemistry in hometown Bangalore, he spent most of his time in student politics. When it was time to look for a job, Raja Krishna Menon joined an ad filmmaker. On the sets of a shoot, watching so many things come together in the making of a film, he fell in love with the medium and discovered within him a storyteller. He has made all of three films in the 13 years that he has spent in the film industry but now Menon has a successful film behind him in ‘Airlift’. The director talks about the story of the world’s biggest evacuation operation, where the government brought back more than one lakh Indians stranded in Kuwait during the Gulf War.
Airlift has been the year’s first commercial success and seems to have evoked a sense of nationalism among the viewers. The patriotism was incidental. The idea was to remind Indians, who have become increasingly cynical about the country, that we have achieved a feat like carrying out the biggest evacuation operation in the world. And if we did it then, we can do a lot more now, too. Cynicism only demotivates the people who can otherwise bring change.
Where did you find the story?
I am a Malayali. Although I was a college student in Bangalore in 1991, I knew the Iraq War was affecting Indians in Kuwait, a large number of who were from Kerala. I was aware of the operation but I realised its scale in 2003 when I started reading up on it.
Recently, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup hinted that the film doesn’t give the bureaucracy due credit, instead making a messiah out of Akshay Kumar’s character, Ranjit Katyal. I am not denying the bureaucracy’s role in the operation. But my film is centred on Ranjit Katyal, a fictitious character. In the film, I cannot show the entire bureaucracy that participated in the operation. Therefore, Sanjeev Kohli, played by Kumud Mishra, represents bureaucracy in the film. This is a human story. The logistics of the operation makes for another film. Whoever wants can make that film. I will share my research.
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There is no documented truth to what happened. People’s experiences varied, based on where they were living and at what point during the war they escaped. A woman who worked closely with the Kuwaiti Royals was whisked away just as the war began. Another man was forced to dispose of bodies of the Kuwaitis executed on the streets. One child made friends with the young Iraqi soldiers while a nurse was made to take all locals off life support and continues to live that trauma. All that has been documented is the operation, which I show. The rest is my cinematic liberty.
In your last two films, Bas Yun Hi and Baarah Aana, you’ve worked with actors such as Tannishtha Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah and Vijay Raaz. Were you apprehensive about casting Kumar?
I knew I needed a star for this film. Firstly, for it’s a big-budget film, secondly because I wanted it to be watched by many people but, most importantly, because the character needed to be larger-than-life to be able to convince viewers that he can get 1.5 lakh people out of a war-torn country.
Any Indian who has lived in Kuwait will tell you that the country doesn’t make you feel at home. You can never become a citizen or even buy property. But Ranjit Katyal feels Kuwaiti before the war breaks out.
His sentiment is not so much about feeling Kuwaiti as it is about not feeling Indian. He is successful there and believes he wouldn’t have achieved all that he has back in India.
Most of those who returned ‘home’ in that operation either went back after the occupation ended or eventually migrated to the West. Then why the show of patriotism in the scene where the Indian flag is raised at the embassy of Jordan?
Patriotism is a two-way street. It can be expressed also by keeping the country clean. And the idea is to show that even if one moves away, one will never stop feeling the connect with one’s roots, especially in a challenging time.
Airlift came six years after your last. If you had the story in 2003, what took you so much time?
After Baarah Aana, which I am very proud of but didn’t do well, I felt the stories I wanted to tell had no takers and I had creatively hit a bottom. So, my wife and I took our son out of school and backpacked through Latin America for over six months. Some time after I came back, in 2012, I noticed a shift in the film scene but I still didn’t think anyone would want to make Airlift. I approached Nikkhil Advani with another script but he instinctively knew it wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s when I told him about Airlift. After that, it was a breeze. Both Abundantia and Akshay came on board as soon as they heard the brief.
Things must have changed since. After Airlift, many filmmakers must be willing to hear you out. What’s next?
Yes, many producers are courting me now, but I am older today and understand the frailty of success. I don’t know what my next will be — I am genre agnostic — I made a rom-com and a thriller set against Mumbai before Airlift. Next, I might just make a small film at a budget of Rs 5 crore. What I do know is I came from Bangalore to tell stories and that, I shall continue to do.