Raja Krishna Menon is thrilled that his Bollywood film, 'Airlift', has become a hit and initiated a conversation all over the country
Photos: Raja Krishna Menon; the director with Akshay Kumar
Raja Krishna Menon watched a group of youngsters, from Iraq and Syria, in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, amble into a changing room, at Ras El Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, on a sunny March morning in 2015.
Later, when these junior artistes came out, in Iraqi Army uniforms, black boots, and holding AK-47s, they looked different. “They walked about with a swagger,” says Raja, the director of the Bollywood film, 'Airlift', which was released on January 22. “They began waving their guns about. One teenager stepped onto the main road and began directing traffic with his gun. Their transformation was scary.”
In fact, when the star Akshay Kumar stepped onto the set and saw the intensity of the soldiers, he turned to Raja and said, “It looks like a real war.”
'Airlift' is the story of the evacuation of 1.7 lakh Indians in Kuwait, following Iraq's invasion of its neighbouring country in August, 1990. It is told through the eyes of millionaire Indian businessman, Ranjit Katyal, played by Akshay. The film has become a box-office hit and crossed Rs 100 crore in earnings within a few days of its release.
Understandably, Raja is feeling happy. He realised the potential of this story as a film in 2003. “A friend told me, 'Man, this was a huge effort by India'. And when I heard the number of people who were saved, it amazed me,” he says.
For the next ten years, Raja read articles, did research on the Internet, and spoke to the people who were involved. Then he sat down and wrote the script. It took one-and-a-half years. “I knew that I needed a big budget to make a film,” says Raja. “The only way was through the presence of a big star.”
That was when Raja's friend, the producer, Vikram Malhotra, stepped in. He sounded out Akshay, who showed interest. So Raja met Akshay at his Mumbai home in 2014. “The narration lasted for two hours,” says Raja. At the end, Akshay agreed to star in the film.
“It was Akshay [as actor and producer] who made it happen,” says Raja. “He told me, 'Raja, if you need anything at all, just call me. I want this [Rs 30 crore] film to be made the way you want it to be'.”
And all this seems like a dream to Raja. The Thrissur-born Malayali grew up in Bangalore, and, following his graduation from Christ College, joined an advertising film company.
A few years later, he moved to Mumbai and began to make advertising films. In total, he has made 300 commercials as well as eight documentaries on dowry harassment and other social topics for various NGOs. In between, he made his first film, 'Bas Yun Hi' (2003) starring Nandita Das and Purab Kohli, but it sank.
Following that, he made the critically-acclaimed 'Barah Aana' (2009) which featured Naseeruddin Shah, Vijay Raaz, and Tannishtha Chatterjee. “It confirmed to me that you must always make a film from the heart,” he says.
Which is how he has made 'Airlift'. Asked to analyse why the film has done so well, Raja says, “There is so much of negativity in the country these days. As a result, there is a deep hunger for life-affirming stories. My film provides that.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)