Ajay Devgn’s Runway 34 Breaks Away From The Bollywood Formula, Film Companion

Director: Ajay Devgn
Writers: Sandeep Kewlani & Aamil Keyan Khan
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Amitabh Bachchan, Boman Irani, Rakul Preet Singh, Angira Dhar, Aakanksha Singh
Cinematographer: Aseem Bajaj
Editor:
Dharmendra Sharma

Runway 34 is a mashup of a movie, the 2012 Denzel Washington starrer Flight, and a real-life incident. In 2015, a Doha-Kochi Jet Airways flight made a dangerously difficult blind landing. The weather was so poor that the visibility was almost nil and the captain called: May Day. Miraculously, all the passengers survived.

Director Ajay Devgn and writers Sandeep Kewlani and Aamil Keyan Khan combine these two stories. Ajay plays Captain Vikrant Khanna, who like Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker, is a rule breaker. But while Whitaker is a tragic mess – an alcoholic who uses cocaine to take off the edge – Vikrant is a cowboy. As he strides into the airport wearing his uniform and shades, the background music chants: He’s the one, he’s the Alpha man.

Vikrant parties hard, he smokes in front of no smoking signs or simply dangles a cigarette between his lips. When someone tells him he can’t smoke there, he says, with classic, tough guy disdain: Abhi jalaya toh nahi. Vikrant might behave badly but he doesn’t actually break any Hindi movie hero rules. The writers make sure to insert dialogue that makes this clear. His mother-in-law says that he’s the type of man who would never abandon you in a tough situation. A colleague declares: Inhe kaun nahi janta. He’s an ace pilot. And this comes from a passenger – He seems to be a gentleman. I trust him. Also, Vikrant has a photographic memory. In short, he’s every inch the swaggering, sassy, sexy rogue with a strong moral code.

 

Who then finds himself in a life-and-death situation. A series of events lead to him making a decision to land the plane in the middle of a turbulent storm on runway 34 in Trivandrum. The first half of the film largely takes place on an airplane and the second, at a closed-door trial where Vikrant and co-pilot Tanya are under investigation.

As long as the plot is plane-bound, Runway 34 also soars. In places, the slick, heavily digitized visuals come dangerously close to looking like a video game but Ajay, DOP Aseem Bajaj and editor Dharmendra Sharma construct a tense and riveting drama. The passengers are strictly one-note – an elderly lady, a first-time flier with a baby, YouTuber CarryMinati playing himself – but the camera moving in and out of the cockpit immerses us into the action. In a nice touch, Vikrant also loses his customary cool expression and experiences vulnerability and fear. The panic is palpable. It’s genuinely frightening to see the plane plummeting towards the ground.

But this grip loosens in the second half. The action is no longer physical. It’s now in the dialogue-baazi and sparring between Vikrant and Narayan Vedant, his nemesis from the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau. The role is played by Amitabh Bachchan who essentially channels his “Parampara Pratishtha Anushasan” avatar from Mohabbatein. Narayan is a stickler for the rules and is keen to nail Vikrant for narrowly avoiding disaster. He’s also a lover of shudh Hindi so he helpfully translates his own lines into English because no one seems to understand the words he uses. At one point, he shouts at a subordinate: Incompetence breeds incompetence. But he first says the same thing in very difficult Hindi.

Also read: Ajay Devgn On Directing Amitabh Bachchan For Runway 34

Both halves of this film take place in enclosed spaces. This isn’t a constraint in the first. Ajay uses every inch of the cockpit and plane to heighten the drama but in the second, the writing trips the storytelling. There are a few clever lines and mic-drop moments but largely the momentum deflates. Ajay resorts to tight close-ups and the focus keeps shifting between the foreground and background to showcase the shifting emotions. Narayan shouts often. The conversation becomes about headwinds, tailwinds and wind pressure. But the tension doesn’t accelerate. Intriguingly, the critical question of why Vikrant decided to detour to Trivandrum instead of Bengaluru is hardly addressed.

The second half also suffers because Sandeep and Aamil haven’t expended enough attention on the supporting characters. Boman Irani, hamming to the hilt, plays a greedy airline owner who is desperate for a merger. There’s also a rival airline owner – a woman who smokes a cigar, which is the only character trait she’s been given, which also signifies that she’s a badass. Meanwhile Vikrant’s wife is a dull and obtuse homemaker who complains that he doesn’t tell her he loves her or even take her out on a date.

Rakul Preet Singh does well as the newbie co-pilot but Runway 34 is pretty much the Ajay Devgn show. Vikrant’s character seems to have emerged from the strong-silent-stoic persona that Ajay has honed over three decades in film. This is a man whose stride tells the world – don’t mess with me. I wish Runway 34 had leaned into Vikrant’s faultlines as much as Flight did into Whitaker’s. Washington scored an Oscar nomination for that performance. But perhaps Hindi cinema isn’t ready yet for an A-list superstar to play such a depraved, pathetic character.

Still, Runway 34 does break away from Bollywood formula. The film is inconsistent, but also ambitious and in places, thrilling.

You can watch it at a theatre near you.

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