A high-flying pilot, in charge of a flight from Dubai to Kochi, has to bring all his vaunted expertise to bear in order to power through bad weather and worsening visibility. Is he successful?
Is that even a question? The most effective disaster movies keep both stakes and suspense high, but in ‘Runway 34’, my heart was never in my mouth. In part because the real-life incident that the film is based on (a 2015 flight from Doha to Kochi had a successful trajectory), and in part because it has an invincible Bollywood hero at the helm.
When a mainstream film is so completely controlled by an A-lister (Devgn is producer-director-lead star), it is inconceivable that it will harbour any complexity, either in the creation of characters or in the way it is told. So going in we know the kind of film we will get — put together in broad brushstrokes, easy to consume, and where the hero emerges victorious. For all that, Devgn manages to deliver a somewhat effective pre interval portion despite its inelegant, underlined bits, helped enormously by computer graphics, and menacing background music. And then it falls prey to the perils of the second half, and crash-lands in a dreary civil aviation court-room.
The flight begins with the usual settling in, people placing their bags in the overhead cabins, the air-hostesses pacifying boorish flyers (there’s almost always one who will demand more whiskey as soon as the flight takes off), the cabin crew making announcements, and a few people more outlined than the rest — apart from the bad tempered fellow, there’s a Parsi mother-daughter duo, a young Muslim mum with a constantly crying baby, a smart-alecky young man with an ever-recording phone camera (Ajey Nagar aka the very famous i-r-l YouTuber CarryMinati), a bearded aviation journalist who gets to ask the crucial question: if the weather in Kochi is bad, why divert to nearby Trivandrum where the weather may be equally terrible, and why not to Bengaluru, a much safer choice?
That’s what Captain Vikrant Khanna (Ajay Devgn) is asked by his first officer Tanya Albuquerque (Rakul Preet Singh). That question hangs in the thick air, as the fuel plunges, the wind rises, the torrential rain lashes, and the plane flies into the kind of turbulence which is a nightmare for all concerned: increasingly alarmed passengers and crew and air traffic control officers, who all gawp and cheer for the pilot who puts out the dreaded Mayday signal, but who manages, right at the very last minute, to pull out a genie from the bottle.
In its zeal to paint Vikrant a hero, despite clear signs of transgression (all-night partying, too many wakeful hours), he is made into a saviour with a photographic memory whose heart is in the right place. And to that end, the plot reduces all the other actors to bit parts. Boman Irani as a crafty airline owner, Aakansha Singh as Vikrant’s supportive wife, Angira Dhar as his lawyer, even Amitabh Bachchan as his chief antagonist, as the thundering, intimidating, perfect-Hindi speaking interrogator, whose job is to fix responsibility. Rakul Preet Singh is capable of more than just being a scared presence in the cockpit, but she doesn’t really get a chance, and the Bachchan-Devgn face-off never quite takes off.
In all this — the loose ends hanging, the jury being mute spectators, and the tricky questions brushed under the carpet — the one who keeps it on course is Devgn, with a performance that fits right into his movie.