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
Don't ask why, but Runway 34 reminded me of Kabir Singh. Actually, let me tell you why anyway. It has nothing to do with love. It does, however, have everything to do with hypermasculinity – and the concessions made for skillful but deeply flawed men on screen. Runway 34 is a film about an alpha male (not my term; the introduction song is titled "alpha man") who also happens to be a star commercial pilot, a stylish chain smoker, a drinker who parties between flights, and an arrogant genius who pushes the limits of professionalism. He overrules his colleagues, flaunts his seniority and naps in the cockpit. His wife asks him to stay grounded. In short, he is not a very nice person. After he miraculously lands an airplane in terrible weather, his personality is put on trial during an AAIB investigation. Should he be punished for being a toxic and reckless fellow or should he be rewarded for saving the lives of 149 passengers?
The central conflict – as well as the design of the protagonist – is derived from Robert Zemeckis' Flight. But unlike in Flight, where Denzel Washington's devil-may-care alcoholic pilot grows a conscience, Runway 34 leans towards celebrating the alpha man's hubris. The screenplay is littered with evidence. His female co-pilot, for instance, is presented as a weak and tearful character. Ditto for an air hostess, a grieving air traffic controller and most others involved in the near-fatal incident. The precedent set is: Being problematic is OK as long as you are great at what you do. As a result, the male saviour syndrome is writ large over a narrative that, at the most, dares to ask questions about his behaviour. In a way, this is a peculiar cocktail of two popular plane-crash movies – it combines the moral certainty and pilot victimhood of Sully with the moral ambivalence of Flight. Being an Indian film, it uses the body of the latter and the heart of the former (instead of vice versa), forgetting that the "human factor" of pilot stories is not the same as the human factor of love or war stories. The concepts of redemption and accountability apply differently, too.
This murky messaging aside, the main reason Runway 34 reminded me of Kabir Singh – or even Uri for that matter – is that it's a technically sound film. In fact, the first half is so compellingly crafted that it's tempting to overlook the film's flimsy sociological identity. Mainstream Hindi cinema isn't big on airplane movies, so it's novel to see an entire hour dedicated to the drama of flying – complete with convincing visual effects, good editing, smart cinematography and a general sense of rhythm. Captain Vikrant Khanna (Ajay Devgn, on autopilot) thinks it's business as usual on his flight from Dubai to Kochi, until a cyclone pushes him to make split-second decisions and divert to Trivandrum with alarmingly low fuel levels. The flight is loosely based on the real-life experience of a Jet Airways flight between Doha and Kochi in 2015, where similar circumstances forced the pilots to land blind on a short runway in a raging storm. The film is a dramatized account (blind here means eyes closed), but as a nervous flier myself, I can assure you that no amount of dramatization is enough to reveal the sheer terror of being trapped in a metal tube at 32000 feet.
Given his lineage, it's comforting to see that the director in Ajay Devgn has a knack for slick action sequences, some of which came to the fore in Shivaay. The cross-cutting between the cockpit, the passengers, the ATC tower and the violent sky is exemplary, building the tension to a point where I started to get motion sickness and nearly reached for the bag in the seat pocket. There are some excitable directorial swishes, too. The transitions, for example: the first two minutes alone featuring reflection shots on a binocular lens and aviator glares. Then there's a nifty time-lapse sequence in a hotel room, which depicts the pilot racing against time to recover from a wild night. The timing of a soft Jasleen Royal song is perfect, too – amplifying the last-ditch-ness of a landing that might have well turned into India's worst aviation disaster in decades.
As a passenger investing in a ride, I never once rooted for Vikrant and his swag or cleverness
But the writing ensures we stay humble as viewers. It keeps puncturing the visual confidence of the film. For example, Vikrant's co-pilot is named Tanya Albuquerque (a miscast Rakul Preet Singh), a common surname that I can only surmise is a riff on the American city's airport, which is famous for its year-around sunshine; Tanya, in contrast, is defined by the storm her plane is battling. It's a jarring allegory, to say the least. The passengers, like in most campy airplane movies, are a conveniently diverse bunch: a crass Youtuber, an asthamatic Parsi lady, a clingy Sindhi man, a drunken corporate stooge and naturally, a tense aviation journalist who senses that the pilot is in trouble. The dialogue, too, is full of caricatures and bad accents.
The second half, of course, is a courtroom drama. Vikrant Khanna and the airline are summoned for violating safety standards. Here is where the film collapses under the weight of its own culture. Vikrant is presented as a gifted man who takes his job for granted in the first half, yet he is at some point given a misguided Sanju-style monologue in which he blames the whole world for demonizing the work of pilots. Tom Hanks owned a similar monologue in Sully, but that's only because his character was never sullied to begin with; the only thing he was plagued with was self-doubt, not guilt. A lot of the detailing here is contrived, too. One of the accusations is that Vikrant was under the influence of alcohol. I'm not sure about the authenticity of the protocols in place, but surely it can't be that hard to figure out whether he drank on the plane. At no point is Vikrant's decision to divert to Trivandrum and not Bengaluru challenged either. The camerawork goes a bit ballistic in these scenes, almost as though the film were trying to convert the physical momentum of the first half into mental momentum. Tight close-ups violate the faces of nearly every person in the room, not least the jittery co-pilot and her glycerine-shot eyes. My motion sickness returned in these portions, for entirely different reasons.
Amitabh Bachchan appears as AAIB boss Narayan Vedant, a taskmaster so determined to nail the rash pilot that he can best be described as Mohabbatein's Narayan Shankar parachuted into the aviation industry. His Hindi is chaste – perhaps a deliberate nod to Bachchan's hosting of KBC – and his voice is unwavering. He even cracks a timely joke about how everyone these days resorts to soldier-at-the-border analogies to hide their own mistakes. Narayan is, in an ideal universe, the hero of this film – he's the only person doing his job with utmost integrity. But the film somewhat frames him as a pesky cop out to get the gallant thief: a conceit that pretty much sums up the primary issue of Runway 34. It can be interesting when the lines are blurred between these two greys. But a crime epic like Heat or even Raman Raghav 2.0 can afford to play with these dualities, unlike a pilot story, where a single mistake and an unwillingness to admit it reflects the fallible character – not courage – of a person. As a passenger investing in a ride, I never once rooted for Vikrant and his swag or cleverness; it felt misplaced in a film that sets out to vindicate all the wrong things. (Which is in stark contrast to Khakhee, where these two actors face off as literal hero and villain). The final resolution sounds like an exchange between a film critic and a film, which is kind of meta in terms of this review.
That Runway 34 revises the Jet Airways incident – where the pilots and airline faced the music – to fit its own worldview is fine. I like films with strong opinions. But the stand itself is far from healthy. Pilots are already aspirational by virtue of the high-risk responsibility they shoulder, day in and day out. Heroism is inherent to their job. Becoming Singhams in the cockpit translates that pride into narcissistic ego and attitude. Movies like this are unable to tell one from the other. Lovers and soldiers can still get away with those romanticized traits. But pilots? Not so much. No matter how high you fly, after all, a landing is imminent. No amount of storytelling can change that.