Raja Menon’s first movie in seven years since Barah Aana is loosely based on the largest civilian evacuation in history – the operation to rescue over one lakh Indians in 1990 from Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. An unmatched feat of diplomacy, co-ordination, and logistical effort, the evacuation is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise-blemished record of addressing the needs of migrant Indians caught in the crosshairs of war.

The operation required the involvement of scores minds at the top and the bottom of the diplomatic pyramid, including serving foreign minister IK Gujral, but Airlift claims that one and only one man was responsible: the fictional businessman Ranjit (Akshay Kumar), whose high-level contacts and humongous bank balance make it possible to spearhead the entire rescue. (Ranjit is described in the end credits as a composite of two real-life businessmen who helped with the operation.)

When we first meet Ranjit, he is not yet in the mould of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved the lives of over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories (and was the subject of a contested Steven Spielberg biopic), but he is getting there. Practical to a fault and a superb negotiator, Ranjit describes himself as a Kuwaiti rather than an Indian, and has mild contempt for the country he has long left behind.

But Ranjit’s entrepreneurial skills come handy when Saddam Hussein orders his soldiers and tanks into the kingdom. The invasion puts the lives of several hundred thousand Indians of all classes in jeopardy, and reluctant Ranjit is transformed into a most enthusiastic messiah. He relocates his stricken fellow nationals to a refugee camp and takes on the delicate task of persuading a grubby-handed Iraqi general (Inaamulhaq) and the Indian government – represented, again, by a single caring bureaucrat (Kumud Mishra) – that these lives are worth saving. The general has already offered to protect Ranjit’s wife Amrita (Nimrat Kaur) and his daughter in exchange for money.

Akshay Kumar in Airlift.

Airlift works very well if the paying public is willing to forget the actual facts of the operation. The smart screenplay, by Raja Menon, Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah and Rahul Nangia, deftly lays out the characters of Ranjit and his initially reluctant wife, who cannot understand her husband’s sudden turn towards charity, and resists the temptation to fast-forward to the inevitably rousing nationalistic climax. The rescue operation follows a long and vexing attempt to shake the Indian government into action. The frustrations and false victories are explored at length, as if to remind viewers that in real life, rescue operations are far more mundane than the movies lead us to believe. Menon credibly creates a sense of a nation at war, and the decidedly non-flamboyant writing creates a convincing arc for Ranjit’s character to evolve from pragmatist to super-hero.

The director, editor Hemanti Sarkar and cinematographer Priya Gupta deftly keep the tension boiling and the narrative ticking despite the intrusion of songs down to the patriotic climax, which eventually proves to be misplaced. Airlift suggests that private enterprise succeeded where the government failed. The movie emphasises that every individual life counts, best demonstrated in Ranjit’s insistence that a Kuwaiti widow and her child qualify for refuge and evacuation despite the protests of a particularly quarrelsome Indian, George Kutty (Prakash Belwadi). Despite the salute to the tricolour, the real agenda is to pay moist-eyed tribute to Ranjit, without whose heroism, suggests the movie, this historic rescue would not have been possible.

The movie might have collapsed under the weight of its own conceit if it hadn’t been for the taut writing and the strong performances by the cast. Nimrat Kaur is a fine foil to Akshay Kumar, who delivers his best performance in ages. Kumar has been lining his own bank balance with comedies and action thrillers for years, and Airlift indicates that he remains capable of playing a conflicted character who is transformed by circumstances into a man of action.

The star triumphs over the facts in a sleight of hand that makes for riveting but also fanciful cinema. Black-and-white photographs in the closing credits show several nameless government employees at work, stamping the temporary papers that allow the Indians to re-enter their country and facilitating the relocation of this mass of humanity. This amazing story needs a second movie, perhaps titled The Real Airlift, which is not in thrall to a single and singular man but acknowledges the hundreds who enabled lakhs of Indians to return home safe. Airlift soars on its own merits, but it is ultimately a flight of fantasy.