When the Gulf war broke out in 1990, there was an air of uncertainty and panic in the household of every Indian expat living at the time not just in the main center of conflict – Kuwait, where the situation was extremely bad – but in all the neighboring Arab countries as well. And if you were a small kid living in one of these Arab countries, you might have a vivid memory of how worried your parents were during those times.
Personal safety became more important than earning big bucks. Indians stranded in Kuwait were eager to fly to their hometown as soon as possible. Recently, Bollywood dramatized these events through the film Airlift starring Akshay Kumar. Twenty-four years after the Gulf War, another Arab country bore witness to a similarly dangerous event. And both these events involved Saddam Hussein.
Debut director Mahesh Narayanan’s Take Off is based on the ordeal of 46 Indian nurses who were stranded in Iraq when ISIS militants took over the hospital in Tikrit where they worked. In the film, there are only 19 nurses and Parvathy plays one of them, Sameera. Instead of straight away jumping into this situation, Narayanan devotes a considerable amount of time – the entire first half of the film, actually – getting us acquainted with Sameera and her background.
She is an unconventional woman, to say the least. Having to deal with a tremendous amount of responsibilities, including a debt that she has to pay off, she severs ties with her husband (Asif Ali) and the stifling patriarchal environment of his home and gets married again, this time to a fellow nurse named Shahid. From the very beginning, we can see that Shahid is more apt for her and when she comes to this realization much later, we are glad. It’s nice to see such progressive characters show up in Malayalam cinema these days. However, certain complications arise when they both move to Iraq and get employed at a hospital there.
When her ex-husband realizes that their 8-yr old son would be better off with her, she has to not only find a way to get him accustomed to this new and alien landscape, but also his future stepfather. This is a woman burdened with way too many responsibilities that you begin to wonder how she manages to hold on without letting the ground under her give way. For Parvathy, the camera doesn’t seem to exist. It’s as if she is not conscious of it, unlike most of the actresses working in India today. The way she effortlessly eases into every character she does is certainly admirable. She juggles every conflict – both external and internal – and emotion with consummate flair and verve.
Sameera is a strong-willed woman with no agendas. All she wants to do is survive, but not at the expense of those close to her, including her colleagues. When they are taken captive by the ISIS militants, she demonstrates an unusual resolve despite being tormented relentlessly by anxiety minute after minute. The film is in the same league as Ben Affleck’s Argo and Airlift but I found it much superior to those films. Unlike them, this isn’t a one-man show. Be it Fahadh Faasil’s steadfast and quick-witted Indian embassy official Manoj Kumar or Kunchacko Boban’s sweet-natured Shahid, everyone has equal parts to play.
Take Off is a survival drama and a women empowerment film rolled into one. Narayanan, who used to be a film editor before, directs the film with even-handedness and doesn’t resort to any clichés. Most Indian directors try to replicate the feel of a Hollywood film and fail terribly. However, this isn’t the case with Narayanan. He succeeds in creating an incredibly tense atmosphere and we get a real sense of peril here. I can’t think of any Malayalam film from recent memory that was this flawless. A new director’s career has “taken off” in a big way.