Flight To Safety

Film producer Nikhil Advani tells us how Airlift, based on the largest human evacuation in history carried out by Air India in 1990 Kuwait, is a tale of modern patriotism

I have always wanted to make movies that not only cater to mainstream movie-goers but also send out a social message. Airlift tells a very powerful story, which at first seems unbelievable and then so inspiring that you can’t help but be moved to patriotism. It almost brought tears to my eyes.

In a cynical world, where one often wonders what the country has done for its people, this is a stark reminder of what it has, indeed, done – not for one or ten, but for 170,000 of its own. It’s the story that will shut up every sceptic Indian.

In 1990, when Iraq attacked Kuwait and the government there fell, the residents of the smaller nation were left rudderless and at the mercy of an invading force. Several thousand Indians resided in Kuwait. Some, like the protagonist of our film Ranjit Katiyal, were powerful and financially well established. Overnight, they lost everything they had built – money, social status, an easy life and even the assurance of physical safety. They appealed to the Indian government and it was decided that they would have to cross into Jordan and be airlifted from Amman. Using military transport was a problematic option due to air-space clearances, and this was when Air India was called upon to help. And it agreed. Commercial pilots were asked to fly civilian aircraft into a war zone and evacuate refugees. The film has a montage of the Air India heroes who took part in thishistoric effort and also a scene in which we see the pilots first saying no and then agreeing, solely on humanitarian grounds. They and the crew members involved in the rescue flight risked their lives to save others.

When director Raja Menon approached me, he had a smaller film in mind. I urged him to choose a more challenging script – one that seemed almost impossible. Then he narrated the evacuation story. It left me stunned and also ashamed that I, who consider myself to be an aware citizen of the country, was completely in the dark about a record-breaking achievement. In fact, no one I knew seemed to be aware of this evacuation. It seemed so strange that we were aware of a similar American action in Iran but not the larger Indian one. As a citizen and a filmmaker, I felt it was my duty to tell the story to all. We approached Air India and the national carrier was happy to help.

I have flown Air India and the erstwhile Indian Airlines all my life and this humanitarian face of the airline is what sets it apart from the others. Even today, it is seen standing beside fellow countrymen in taxing times.

‘AIRLIFT fit for textbooks’

Akshay Kumar, who says that the film stirred his deepest fear, of losing his family, believes it’s a must-watch for all Indians

Tell us about the film and the character you essay in it.

Airlift, based on a true event, is set in 1990 Kuwait, the era of the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The film has me essaying the role of Ranjit Katyal, a wealthy and powerful Indian businessman who initially considers himself a Kuwaiti rather than an Indian. But after finding himself and the lives of his family in danger, he recognises his Indian-ness and becomes the man who helps evacuate 1,70,000 Indians from Kuwait and bring them back safely to India. Airlift is a victory of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Isn’t it strange it took Indians so long to recognise the feat? The story was an eye-opener to me, as I’m sure it will be to millions of Indians! I understand that there were several political and commercial compulsions at that time which did not allow this story to come to the fore. It is important to understand that Airlift is a story of Indians and India, but the backdrop and the event itself had significant global impact. It is a story that the young generation of Indian needs to read about in school textbooks.

How does Airlift delve into the human mind?

The movie goes deeper into the characters’ minds than just portraying their fear of losing everything they’ve built and stand for. The film deals with a gamut of human emotions – the fear of being homeless, of losing your life and dear ones. It portrays the triumph of the human spirit. It’s a fear even I harbour – of losing my loved ones

Humane efforts of Air India


In August 1990, Air India and the erstwhile Indian Airlines evacuated 1,11,711 Indian citizens from Iraq and Kuwait via 488 flights over 59 days, creating a world record for the largest aerial evacuation since the Berlin airlift in 1948-49.


Approximately 15,000 people airlifted from Libya in March 2011 under Operation Safe Homecoming.


01Around 3,614 people were evacuated from Yemen in April 2015 under Operation Raahat.



AI mounted evacuation efforts in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during the 2004 .


01Air India operated free of cost on its scheduled flights. additional flights from Dehradun to bring back stranded pilgrims during the Uttarakhand floods in June 2013. It also offered slashed fares to passengers.


01Air India flew in relief material, doctors and paramedics to help those in Leh devastated by the flash floods in 2010.



With the Chennai airport closed, those with confirmed tickets toChennai could fly to any nearby city

01Air India helped in the evacuation of earthquake-hit people from Nepal in April 2015. It flew in relief material and resumed regular operations within hours of the quake. It also slashed fares.

01Air India helped out extensively during the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, flying in relief materials in flights.



01Air India rushed rescue flights to flood-hit Chennai in December 2015. With Chennai closed, it flew a test flight from Hyderabad to Rajali, the naval air station at Arakkonam



01Air India took part in evacuation efforts in flood-ravaged Jammu and Kashmir in September 2014, flying out stranded people and flying in tonnes of relief material. Extra aircraft were also mobilised. It flew affected people Air India operated free of cost on its scheduled flights.



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