Nimrat Kaur and Akshay Kumar in 'Airlift', which is currently being filmed in Ras Al Khaimah. Image Credit: Cape of Good Films

The road behind the Ras Al Khaimah Exhibition Centre has been cordoned off with steel mesh and a security guard ensures that no civilians pass through. There’s an acrid smell of tyres burning in the air. Thick clouds of smoke are billowing from destroyed vehicles and armed soldiers in khakhi uniforms ambush vehicles, drag passengers from cars, and shoot them dead if they show any resistance. The city is burning; it is under siege by brutal Iraqi military forces.

But before you panic, this isn’t a real-life war.

tabloid! is on the movie set of Bollyood star Akshay Kumar’s Airlift, an ambitious tale about a massive civilian evacuation of Indian expatriates that took place during the 1990 Gulf War when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. It’s being partly shot in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), and the emirate has been dressed up to look like Kuwait in the 90s.

They are on their 13th day of filming in RAK and the 180-plus crew from India will be here until the end of this month, before they proceed to shoot in Mumbai. Repeated requests not to take any pictures are made to protect the sanctity of the pivotal scene that is being filmed.

“When Saddam Hussain attacked Kuwait, there were at least 150,000 Indians displaced by war. When an invader attacks another country, people staying there don’t know what to do. It’s a story about those Indians. Whose door should they knock on?,” said Kumar in an exclusive interview with tabloid!. As he spoke, he looked at the monitor to gauge how the scene that involved him being brutally handled by the soldiers panned out.

Kumar, one of Bollywood’s most bankable actors today, plays a Kuwait-based tycoon Ranjit Katyal, who turns into a saviour for those thousands of displaced Indians and spearheads a massive Indian civilian evacuation drive. Actress Nimrat Kaur, who became a bona fide star with the sumptuous international hit The Lunchbox and recently appeared in the hit US television series Homeland, plays his wife.

Airlift is about displacement and the sense of uprooting that you feel when you don’t know where to go. Remember, they have to deal with the loss of whatever they have built over the decades … Airlift is my first big film and it has been an incredibly enriching experience,” said Kaur.

She wasn’t on acting call on Thursday afternoon, but had dropped in on the sets. While Kumar has been in RAK since March 7 and will be here until the end of the month, Kaur had joined the crew later and even recently celebrated her birthday on the movie sets.

But Airlift, directed by Raja Krishna Menon, is not about terrorism, says Kumar.

“This is not Baby, Part 2 [Kumar’s terrorism hit]. Airlift belongs to the stories of all those families who were affected by war when Saddam attacked Kuwait … We are both playing real characters. We can’t talk about them and I am not going to reveal their names either. But we spoke to them and everything that you see in the film has been taken from experiences of real-life people who survived that war,” said Kumar.

It’s a film inspired by true events and perhaps that’s why it’s such a massive collaborative production. Produced by Bhushan Kumar, Emmay Entertainment, Cape Of Good Films (the company owned by Kumar) and Abundantia Entertainment, Airlift has the makings of a war epic — a genre that has been rarely tapped in Bollywood. It’s slated to release next year on January 21 in the UAE.

“Unfortunately, we have been only stuck with India-Pakistan war in our films. I am sick and tired of it. The whole thing has become boring,” said Kumar. His on-screen wife, Kaur, couldn’t agree more.

“We have explored the 1947 India-Pakistan struggle, the post-partition issues, that trauma in detail. But I don’t think any film like this which is based on a real-life incident has been ever made,” said Kaur.

Kumar, the self-made matinee idol who often tops the highest taxpaying Indian stars list, says Airlfit explores the deepest human fears and vulnerabilities.

“I had seen a film called Waqt that starred actor Balraj Sahni. He starts off as a rich man and everything is going great for him. He feels invincible like nothing can go wrong in his life because he has a lovely wife, three children, fame and money. But then there comes an earthquake and in an instant he loses his wife and everything that he has earned. It’s just one natural disaster. But it’s one film that plays in my head every day. This is one fear that I will always have,” said Kumar, letting us in on his deepest fears.

“I always fear that a giant foot — that of nature or a country attacking another — might land on my life. It’s the most horrifying feeling. If you watch this film, it may remind you of human frailties.”

Visibly disturbed at the train of his thoughts, Kumar quickly takes out his phone from his pocket and zooms in on a picture that he had clicked a few days ago during his shoot. It shows a grim-looking Kumar in a business suit standing alongside another man, who plays a labourer, in a dilapidated city.

“War is the biggest leveller. It doesn’t make any distinction between the rich and the poor, your job title or religion. It’s indiscriminate and we want to highlight that,” said Kumar, adding that Airlift will reveal the humane side of war. Before he could continue, he’s called on for one of the scenes. Suddenly, the laid-back star, who was languidly seated on the plastic chair during our interview, switches to work mode. He’s effortless in front of the camera and his working style is a telltale sign that he’s not a method actor.

“I don’t function with method acting. I like to read my script and think about what the character feels and then I just go do it. If I need to run, I don’t have to actually run,” said Kumar, suddenly huffing away and out-of-breath to underscore his point.

“Some actors sometimes in interviews say that they have been so immersed in their characters that they cannot now break away after the film is over. I read those interviews and smile. And, I know them, so when I see them soon after and they seem normal to me. But during [the] interview — they say all that,’ said Kumar with a sly smile. Noted. So what was the most challenging part about Airlift?

“The most challenging part was to create Kuwait in Ras Al Khaimah. But the RAK government has been so helpful. Today, the whole stretch of this road has been blocked. Everybody has been so supportive -and in return all they need is one photo. I want to thank each one of them.” said Kumar. A minute later, Kumar is called for another shot — but not before he stops to take a picture with one of the local guests. 

Meet the producers

Bhushan Kumar of T-Series and Monisha Advani of Enmay Entertainment discuss the war epic Airlift

What made you zero down on Ras Al Khaimah as a primary location to film Airlift?

Bhushan Kumar: It’s an evacuation drama and we needed a Gulf country that could exude a 90s feel. RAK went well with how team designed the look. 

Monisha Advani: Everybody here have been so helpful. RAK Tourism board have been exceptional in providing support. The other day, there was a funny incident where we were struggling to tie a scarf around Kumar and this local person just came forward to help us out. These are small incidents, but it shows how supportive everyone in RAK has been. 

What’s the budget of the film?

Bhushan Kumar: We have kept the budget of the film realistic. It’s a Rs40 crore [Dh23 million] film and a good chunk of that money will go into the production of film. In my opinion, it’s reasonably priced. Also, Akshay and Nimrat was our first and only choice. 

Monisha Advani: Without getting into budgets, I can tell you that his film has the biggest heart. We are celebrating the triumph of the human spirit against the backdrop of war in Airlift. And let me add that it has a clever budget, which has been supported by everyone including Akshay Kumar. He’s our superhero. Director Raja [Krishna Menon] came to us with a two-page story idea and we thought we would have to pursue Akshay aggressively for this, but within 15 minutes, he said yes. 

Meet the director

Raja Krishna Menon, whose credits include Bas Yun Hi with Nandita Das (2003) Barah Aana with Naseeruddin Shah (2009), talks about the movie: 

How has your day been so far?

It’s been a fantastic day. Our scene for the day with Akshay went off beautifully. It was raw, gritty and everything is going as per schedule. 

What was the brief you gave to your lead actors?

It’s an emotional story of a man who finds himself through a journey triggered by external circumstances. He’s rich and has achieved everything in life, but somewhere he has forgotten where he came from. I wanted him to bring out that intangible emotion of the Indian spirit. 

In conversation with ...

Viral Thakkar, visual effects (VFX) supervisor of Airlift from Riva Animation in Mumbai. 

What’s the scope for special effects in Airlift?

The scope is immense since it’s a film that works at re-creating the 1990s Kuwait. There’s a lot of destruction being shown with buildings on fire, etc. We have to make sure that there are no new towers being shown on the screen and lots of have to be replaced. The invasion by tankers, the choppers, the war machinery will have to be digitally re-created. So yes, for a VFX team — such a project is a dream. 

What’s your biggest challenge?

We are doing a lot of research to remain authentic to the 90s era. The idea is to take care of even the minutest details such as the car-plate numbers, road texture, which are damaged due to the war destruction, etc. 

Meet

Hassan Mohammad, 20, who’s an extra on the sets of Airlift

How did you get the job of an extra?

My friends told me that Akshay Kumar will be shooting here and that they need extras. I jumped at the offer. I have skipped my BBA classes for this role. 

What’s your role?

I play a young Iraqi soldier in uniform with a gun. But it’s great see Akshay Kumar in person. I have been watching him since childhood. But it’s a different feeling to see him in the flesh. He has such a big heart and has a terrific body.