** Take Off Spolier Alert
July 5, 2014 will go down in the annals of Indian diplomatic history. On that day, forty-six Malayali nurses returned from war-torn Iraq, escaping from the jaws of death after being held captive by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) for 23 days. It was one of the rare instances when the Islamic State militants had freed their abductees. Their safe passage home was made possible by the concerted efforts of the Ministry of External Affairs, the Indian Mission in Iraq, the Oommen Chandy-led Kerala government and Malayali businessmen living in the Middle East.
Nearly three years later, director Mahesh Narayanan has effectively captured in his newly released Malayalam film Take Off the harrowing time these nurses spent at their hospital in Tikrit.
Starring Parvathy, Fahadh Faasil and Kunchacko Boban, the film offers a fictionalised narrative of the abduction of the nurses, the efforts to rescue them and their eventual release. While Take Off tells the tale of 19 stranded nurses from Kerala, in reality there were 46 women, who were holed up in a hospital in Tikrit, as gunfire and bombs exploded around them.
Reel versus reality
The sequences of events that plays out on the silver screen, however, largely match what unfolded in real life. Take for example, the transfer of the nurses by the IS militants from the Tikrit hospital to their next prison in Mosul – a fort with massive walls. Led one by one into a dungeon, with gun totting militants all around, the scene closely resembles what Marina Jose, one of the nurses abducted, described to Times of India.
Parvathy’s character Sameera in the film is loosely based on Marina Jose, who played an instrumental role in the rescue effort. Her SOS messages to Oommen Chandy and India’s Ambassador to Iraq Ajay Kumar not only helped the government keep track of the nurses but proved critical in ensuring those kidnapped did not lose hope.
Actor Fahadh Faasil plays the role of Manoj Kumar, Indian Ambassador to Iraq
“Of the 46 nurses, I was one of the seniors. Plus, I had worked abroad before - in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Also, I had a political connection; my family knew Oommen Chandy sir so I could talk to him freely. A lot of people from NORKA and CK Menon from Qatar were in constant touch with us — that gave me some confidence. Though they would talk to us and reassure us, there was nothing else they could do.,” Marina tells TOI’s Sanjith Sidhardhani.
Mystery Malayali businessman
The film highlights the role played by a prominent Malayali businessman based in Saudi Arabia, who pulls enough strings to negotiate the eventual release of the nurse.
Following their return to Kerala, there was speculation in the media as to who the wealthy businessman in the Middle East was and what role they played in the nurses’ release.
Actor Prem Prakash plays the role of a Saudi-based businessman, who helps in the nurses' rescue (Image courtesy: YouTube grab)
Charu Sudan Kasturi reporting for Telegraph details the influence of the Malayali expatriate community in West Asia and mentions that the Kerala government was in touch with several industrialists in the region including Oman-based real estate mogul, PNC Menon.
And while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had in the Rajya Sabha refuted reports that a wealthy businessman had helped in the rescue of the nurses, former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has now told TNM, “Malayali NRI businessmen in the Middle East have helped significantly in the release of Malayali nurses from the war-hit regions of Iraq and Libya. The situation as you know was critical and some of our businessmen extended help.”
While the film hints at a ransom being paid by the Saudi businessman, who negotiated their release, Chandy said he was unaware of the same. As far as the who the mystery Malayali businessman is, the ex CM says, “I won’t be able to reveal their identity as it would affect their existence in those countries. They have to carry forward their business ventures there and it's dangerous to reveal their identity.”
Another crucial decision that perhaps made all the difference in bringing the nurses out of Iraq alive was turning down their request to travel with the International Red Cross. The decision, which finds mention in the film, was confirmed by Oommen Chandy to TNM, who said that they had asked the nurses not to escape from Tikrit to Kurdistan with the International Red Cross for security reasons.
Recalling the minutes spent promising Marina Jose and the other nurses that they would be rescued, the then Chief Minster says, “She used to update us from the conflict zone. We could hear the noise of blasts and the sound of nurses screaming over the phone. Sometimes I would hand over the phone to Sushma Swaraj. But the militants never misbehaved with the nurses and even insisted that they should escape themselves. I remember her, the nurse who had the presence of mind to deal with the situation."