It's about India in all its glory: Raja Krishna Menon on Airlift, Indian cinema and life

A movie to look forward to
Raja Krishna Menon
Raja Krishna Menon

It’s been a long wait for director Raja Krishna Menon; a film he began work on 10 years ago, is all set to release. Menon’s much anticipated film Airlift is all set to release this month. Set in the Gulf War of 1990, the film is about the evacuation of Indians stranded in Kuwait.

The Thrissur-born, Bengaluru-bred and currently Mumbai-based director began chalking out the story of Airlift as early as 2005, around which time he met many people who had lived in Kuwait during the war. "I did it in breaks. One of the greatest sources was my wife’s aunt, who was an airhostess with Air India during the war. We spoke to pilots, people at the embassy,” he said.

“It was that time with no internet. I would read up and make notes. Funnily, I happened to meet many people, who had lived in Kuwait during the war. The more I listened to their experiences and saw photographs and videos, the more clearly did Ranjith Katyal’s image become to me,” Menon told The News Minute.

The lead character of the film, Ranjit Katyal, is a businessman who coordinates the operations to evacuate Indians from Kuwait.

“Ranjith Katyal is my imagination, but what he epitomizes is based on real people. Even the incidents in the film are real incidents narrated by different people but they have been arranged in such a way that it suited the flow of the script,” he said.

Raja said that the more stories he heard, the more he believed in India’s abilities. “The 1990 Gulf war literally changed the world, everything – Syria, birth of ISIS and the US reaction etc. But the war was seminal when it comes to India because of the massive civilian evacuation operation that it took up and this was by far India’s greatest achievement that people must know of. I hope by the end of the film people believe a little more in the country,” he said.

Asked if audiences would watch such a film, Menon replied: “I think people are going to see a film that is universal in the way it is being made – it is not a Bollywood film, not a Hollywood film but a story that is told in the most apt way possible.”

However, this film may never have been made. The 44-year-old Menon’s entry into the entertainment industry was quite an unplanned move.

Menon was a Bengaluru boy until 1992, when he had just completed his degree in chemistry from Christ College, and found himself calling up people to get advertisements for the business directory – Yellow Pages, the predecessor to the present-day Justdials of the world.

“I was clueless as to what job to take up. With a few friends, I set out on a trek to Himalayas. It just happened that an uncle, whom I met at a family gathering, put me in touch with a friend of his who was looking for a production assistant at Magic Eye Ltd. I loved what I was doing and somehow knew this was my thing,” Raja said.

His job took him to Mumbai in 1993, where he had a good enough contact base to set up an ad film firm called R and B Ltd. in 1996.

“It was then I got acquainted with Mukul Anand, who directed blockbusters like Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Khuda Gawah and Agnipath. I worked with him on a few projects and it was my first stint in Bollywood,” he said.

In 2003, Menon and some of his friends came together to make some of the first new age independent films with Purab Kohli and Nandita Das-starrer romantic comedy ‘Bas Yun Hi’.

Raja feels that though the low-budget film failed miserably, he learnt a lot about the industry and the importance of the audience’s temperament.

“I took a break and went back to my ad film business. But having learnt from ‘Bas Yun Hi’ I didn’t go wrong with the 2009 comedy film ‘Barah Aana’, which will always be close to my heart. Though a small film, it was well received and travelled to many film festivals abroad,” he said.

Asked why he took such huge gaps and chose to make films of such distinctly different genres, Raja said, “A few weeks ago when someone called me genre agnostic, I took it very positively. I think I am wired that way. It takes a lot of time to write a script that would suit the audience’s temperament after which comes - convincing producers and actors to listen to the story.”

Asked whether he ever thought of making Malayalam films, Menon said that Malayalam cinema needs an extraordinary understanding of the lay of the land (Kerala). “One can’t understand the political and the socio-cultural nuances of a place overnight. But hopefully someday, I will direct a film in Malayalam,” he said.

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