MUMBAI — It’s his latest patriotic film after “Holiday,” Baby” and “Gabbar” — for four years now, Akshay Kumar has been averaging one every year. “Airlift” is about the evacuation of 170,000 Indians during the 1990 Kuwait-Iraq conflict. It is probably as real as one can get, as this is a realistic replay of the real operation undertaken by the Indian government.
Nimrat Kaur, whose background is just one Hindi film, “The Lunchbox,” and a serial in the U.S., “Homeland,” in which she played an ISI agent, is cast for the first time in a mainstream Hindi film, playing Kumar’s wife and a mother.
The lead pair of this T-Series, Nikhil Advani, Akshay Kumar co-production met India-West at the Hotel Sun N’ Sand at noon for a conversation.
Excerpts from the interview, in which Kaur speaks very little!
Q: Akshay, this is an unusual subject for you.
Akshay Kumar: I would not call it a subject, as this is a true story. When the actual story happened, I was not a star and was shooting for my first two films. There was barely any report in the newspapers, as, due to certain reasons, our government kept it completely secret. I was shocked when I came to know of this biggest civilian evacuation in the history of the world.
In the English film “Argo,” they had to keep it a secret that five or six people had to be taken away from a zone. But how does one do that with a 170,000 people? At the same time, the mission succeeded because of the unity between Indians there and the efforts of three or four people in particular. The effort of one of them, a billionaire whose name here is Ranjit Katyal, is highlighted.
Katyal, though, is a fictitious name for this man, whose real identity is not yet disclosed. Today, however, the story is known, and it has gotten an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest peaceful evacuation ever. For me, the greatest heroes were our Air India pilots and crew, who, despite being commercial airline staff, flew selflessly into a war zone, as large airplanes were needed to bring back so many Indians to safety.
Q: What exactly happened?
AK: Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, had invaded Kuwait for its oil and money. Overnight, even the Indian billionaires there turned paupers as their bank balances became zero! Imagine the plight of people with or without families in a foreign land, where they could not even turn to relatives for help. My character and his wife and daughter have a clean chance of escaping, but instead he takes on the responsibility of all his Indian employees who have left their homeland and are now working for him.
Our director, Raja Krishna Menon, had several friends there at that time, and he has lived their story long before he even dreamed of filming it. He did extensive research by meeting so many others. I also met a few of them like this man who was then just 16 and was told to prove that he was an Indian or he would be shot, because Kuwaitis and Indians have the same skin color.
Having no papers, he could not prove his nationality till he sang an entire three and a half minute Hindi song, and they let him go! Another story was of an Indian nurse forced to cut off the life support of Kuwaiti patients in a hospital.
Q: Other than the party song, was anything in Katyal’s character modified, because you, the star, were playing this role?
AK: Not in the least! I play a sharp and shrewd businessman who employs all the delaying tactics possible to get his way. He was no fighter who took on the Iraqis. I even speak Arabic in the film, but I have crammed those lines!
(Kaur butts in): India had excellent relations with Iraq. That was one reason why the operation was never disclosed.
Q: Nimrat, how was it working with Akshay Kumar?
Nimrat Kaur: Really amazing — please, Akshay, don’t stop me now! You see, Akshay gets embarrassed if I praise him in front of the media. I was, of course, very intimidated like anybody would be with a big star like him. It took just a few seconds for that nervousness to go away, thanks to his nature. We spent almost a year on the film, and I did not even realize where the time went! I enjoyed it so much, and again there was a lot to learn. For a one film-old actress like me, it was such a big opportunity.
Q: How easy was it doing the film?
NK: For one, the material was very interesting. More than a character, for me, it was about how to seep into a real-life story as an actor, as it was history that we were bringing back to life. About what had happened then, I did not have a clue, so I just followed the script and director.
I was very happy that the sequences between Akshay and me were very strong, and the chemistry and equation real and genuine and not ‘filmi.’ I was not just a proud wife, but someone who had even asked my husband what his real motive was in taking the responsibility for his momentous deeds.
Q: How did you evaluate the film being offered to you when you know that few heroines have anything much to do in an Akshay Kumar film?
NK: We are always told that in male-centric films actresses actually have nothing to do. We get three songs and some scenes. But for me, it’s about choices. There are obvious reasons and lots of advantages why I feel I must do these things. The opportunity of doing such a film, with Akshay Kumar and in such a big setup, is itself very, very exciting. I want to test myself on this canvas as an actor. From my point of view, the decision is justified because of both the story and the fact that we are actors from two completely different worlds coming together.
AK: Yeah, one is a “Lunchbox” and one a boxer!
Q: After this, what kind of films would you want to do?
NK: I like to do films that I would like to watch, not just silly fare. I read every script as an audience.
Q: You played an ISI agent in “Homeland” and come from an Army background, and your father was martyred. Was doing the role disturbing or cathartic?
NK: Neither. It was very exciting and empowering to play somebody so evil that you cannot be so bad in real life. And yet it was a strong character who justified her reasons.
Q: Akshay, you manage four films a year in India when stars work on just one film. Why have you not done Hollywood movies?
AK: The media will be the first to ridicule me if I am seen for only two minutes! “See, there he went, Akshay Kumar. Didn’t you notice him?” Please, why do all that? As for doing four films in a year, I am a tailor who makes your shirt with two meters of cloth, not with the entire roll!
Q: When do you start working on “Robot 2” as the villain?
AK: It will take about two months.
Q: Your wife Twinkle Khanna is now a celebrated author whose first book “Mrs Funnybones” had eight reprints in as many months on Penguin Books. Did you know of this talent?
AK: Her sense of humor? Yes. Her writing skills — no! I am glad that people have accepted her frankness and openness.