Sudha Kongara’s Soorarai Pootru opens with the disclaimer “Based on Simply Fly and stories from the world of aviation” but any resemblance to GR Gopinath, the author of the book, is as fleeting as an affordable ticket on a last-minute booking for a Mumbai-Delhi flight.
The makers of the Tamil-language production have clarified that Gopinath has only broadly inspired the film’s hero Maara, a man from Madurai who dreams of setting up a low-cost airline. Gopinath’s autobiography Simply Fly, published in 2010, is a testament to his entrepreneurial energy – he ran an agricultural business, a motorcycle dealership and a helicopter service before setting up Air Deccan in 2003.
Gopinath steered Air Deccan for four years but ran into a host of operational problems and crippling losses. In 2008, he sold his business to his rival Kingfisher Airlines, owned by the liquor baron and future fugitive Vijay Mallya. The movie based on Gopinath’s achievements wisely focuses on the early chutzpah rather than the later collapse.
The distance between Gopinath and Soorarai Pootru’s dashing leading man begins with the choice of setting. The Amazon original movie reimagines the Kannada businessman as a farmer from Madurai. Maara (Suriya) is a rebel with a quick temper and impatience with rules – qualities that endear him to his wife Sundari (Aparna Balamurali) and prove useful when he tussles with uncooperative government officials and crooked business rivals.
Sundari becomes a vital supporter of Maara’s plans to set up an airline that every Indian can afford to fly. Maara’s fellow villages also rally around their home-grown disruptor, pitching in with folksy wisdom and their savings when his hopes get dashed ever so often.
The opposition is not to be sneered at. Paresh Goswami (Paresh Rawal), the supercilious head of a Jet-like airline called Jaz, pulls every possible string to trip up Maraa. A “two steps forward and four steps back” situation ensues. Maara encounters a deeply entrenched culture of crony capitalism and a compromised bureaucracy as he struggles to get his business off the ground.
Operating mostly in the realm of fiction, Soorarai Pootru works better if the Gopinath connection is tucked out of sight. The screenplay, by Kongara and Shalini Usha Nair, provides a romanticised account of a rural innovator who starts small, dreams big and ultimately flies high, all with the support of his family and community. Doused in shades of brown and gold by cinematographer Niketh Bomireddy and accompanied by a peppy soundtrack by GV Prakash Kumar, the movie is bursting with drama and rousing moments.
Kongara stages her 149-minute narrative vividly and deftly and handles her cast beautifully. But she is unable to prevent her movie from being too long, too overwrought at times, and too idealised to be a convincing portrayal of what it takes to set up and run a business in India. Maara’s perspective is summed up by his riposte to a character modelled on Vijay Mallya: “You are a socialite and I am a socialist.”
Among the movie’s most riveting bits is the relationship between Maara and Sundari. Right from the moment they first clap eyes on each other, the pair sizzles and sparkles. The scene in which Maara proposes to Sundari in public is a delight, as is the moment when he shamefacedly asks her for a loan. Kongara celebrates Maara’s daring but makes it clear that he could not have done it without his partner.
Suriya’s high-wattage charisma and solid presence make him perfectly suited to play the striver who combines earthy smarts and heroic willpower. This sincere hunk personifies the movie’s can-do energy as well as its belief in a benign form of capitalism that benefits communities, rather than individuals.
Aparna Balamurali is wonderful as Maara’s great love and collaborator. The movie treats Sundari as an equal, rather than a sidekick, and Balamurali memorably brings out her character’s independence and spirit.