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‘Runway 34’: An Edge-of-the-Seat Cockpit Drama Marred by Twitter Turbulence

If you have fear of flying, carry a puke bag for the film’s first half

Suparna Sharma Apr 29, 2022
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Runway 34 (148 minutes)

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Amitabh Bachchan, Rakul Preet Singh, Boman Irani Angira Dhar, Aakanksha Singh, Ajey Nagar aka Carry Minati
Direction: Ajay Devgn
Rating: ★★★1/2
Playing in theatres

Two days before the release of Runway 34, director-actor Ajay Devgn picked an ugly, unprovoked “Hindi hamari matra bhasha hai” Twitter fight with Kannada star Kiccha Sudeep. 

Hindi chauvinism is not new, but the carefully timed spat was meant for a very specific purpose: To create buzz about Devgn’s film, which was missing.  We could spend hours discussing Devgn’s rightward drift. I could explain, with box-office numbers, that his agony was not really about Hindi, given that he has acted in several remakes of South Indian films (Drishyam, Singham), and even stars in this year’s biggest hit, S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR. It’s all just business darling, about Kannada and Telugu films killing it at the box office, while bhaari-bharkam Bollywood films, with expensive, entitled stars are bombing. 

We could also examine how polarisation has become a reliable and cheap marketing strategy for some Bollywood stars. 

Suffice to say that Devgn sullied the waters to promote his film when he needn’t have. Runway 34, directed by and starring Ajay Devgn, is a fine film that could have stood on its own merit. But now, we’ll never know.

Written by Sandeep Kewlani and Aamil Keeyan Khan, the movie is based on true events that took place on August 18th, 2015, when Jet Airways’ Doha-Cochin flight 9W 555, with 150 passengers on board, had to make a blind, emergency landing at the Thiruvananthapuram airport. 

We meet Captain Vikrant Khanna (Ajav Devgn), a pilot with Skyline airline, in Doha. He is also the husband of a sweet but lonely wife, and a father to a young daughter. They spend their time waiting for him because he draws his power and identity from his jet-set life, not home and hearth. 

An arrogant and proud pilot with a been-there-done-that attitude, Vikrant misses no opportunity to brag or take a drag. We are left in no doubt that he is an excellent pilot, but we also see that his swag carries risk. Captain Khanna doesn’t think much about having a drunken night before piloting a flight.

First officer Tanya Albuquerque (Rakul Preet Singh), a wide-eyed rookie, is sincere, earnest, and his co-pilot on the Doha-Cochin flight. 

Skyline’s flight 377 is carrying the usual load — creepy men misbehaving with flight attendants, ladies scared of flying, weeping children, hassled mothers, old ladies. All are one-trait-each characters we don’t care for, but, together, they create a familiar space. This is a flight we could be on.

In the first half of Runway 34, we are mostly in the cockpit, sitting behind Captain Khanna and co-pilot Albuquerque. We stare at the gazillion buttons and listen in as they discuss visibility, altitude, and fuel – how much a flight guzzles and how much it carries.

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All is normal until the aircraft begins its descent. This, the attempt to land, forms the bulk of the film before the interval. Due to heavy rain, thunder and low visibility, the flight can’t land in Cochin and circles above the airport for a while. Albuquerque suggests Bangalore airport, but Captain Khanna takes the flight to Thiruvananthapuram.

There’s a miscommunication and a hurtling cyclone. Visibility is getting worse, and they are fast running out of fuel. As the pilots are forced to make desperate choices and passengers begin to pray, Runway 34 keeps us worried and busy. 

From the cockpit we rush out to stand with the flight attendants as they try to calm the passengers. Then we find ourselves flung outside, watching the aircraft from above as it thrashes about, threatened by wind, rain and scary streaks of lightning. 

With no fuel, no time, no visibility, the only option is to… “Do you know where the runway is?” asks Albuquerque. “Just going blindly,” says Captain Khanna.

Runway 34 is excellent at creating heightened tension as it conjures our collective nightmare before screeching to a halt. I felt like I was disembarking the aircraft, exhausted but with a story to tell.

The film’s first half ends on such a high note that it feels like nothing will match up to it — and that it will all be downhill from here.

The film’s second half is entirely about the investigation and interrogation conducted by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau’s Narayan Vedant (Amitabh Bachchan).

While Captain Khanna is being hailed as a hero, it feels like a lot of questions remain unanswered. Narayan Vedant cradles that concern on our behalf. He sees the gravity of the incident and his meticulous, thorough probe into events leading up to it and decisions taken in the cockpit feels right. 

After Captain Khanna’s thrilling but scary ride, we feel secure in the presence of Vedant’s uncompromising high standards. The captain’s stated position is that he made no mistakes. Narayan Vedant says that mistakes were made and is determined to find out when and by whom. 

Captain Khanna believes that, given the weather, it’s to his credit that he pulled it off. Narayan Vedant says that itself is part of the problem. The aircraft landing, be believes, should have been mundane — without any drama, weeping and Mayday calls.

Have you seen two angry reindeers locking their antlers and fighting? This courtroom-style battle of wits and words is a bit like that. Primal, entertaining, male.

Around it is some corporate intrigue. There’s talk of a merger, an airline’s reputation and thousands of crores are at stake. But every time the film moves away from the Captain and his interrogator, it slows down and gets dull.  

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Mostly, Runway 34 sticks to the actual events that took place in the cockpit of Jet Airways flight 9W 555 in August 2015, but it adds some filmy frills before and after the plane’s landing. The film dramatises events and draws a lot of inspiration about which buttons to press in the cockpit and on ground from Robert Zemeckis’ 2012 film Flight, starring Denzel Washington, and Clint Eastwood’s Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, starring Tom Hanks.

The report of the probe into the actual Jet Airways incident is available online and it is scarier than what we see in the film. It was on their seventh attempt that the flight could finally land, with no view of the runway and fuel left for just three minutes of flying time. 

Devgn and his writers dial down the cockpit drama a bit for the sake of our nerves, but they amp up the interrogation. 

There are some moments of dullness in the film, and mostly they are courtesy the slightly sad but devoted wife, and the daughter waiting for her daddy. The film treats all this as tediously mundane, preferring to smile at sexy women as they come and go, some while puffing cigars. 

Rakul Preet Singh is pretty and nice but she doesn’t have much to do here except to first look admiringly at Captain Khanna, then to widen her eyes with mild disapproval and curiosity, and finally to quake and get rattled.

Runway 34 is devoted to its two male stars and creates a nice build-up for them, giving both the characters some nice bits and baubles.

Bachchan arrives with a reputation. A stickler for rules, he has no tolerance for mistakes and likes using big-big Hindi words. ‘Gurutvaakarshan’ is ‘gravity,’ we are told.

Thankfully, Bachchan doesn’t ham here because all his scenes and dialogue are sharply written and edited. He does do some nice voice modulation though, at times going a bit nasal to sound serious and a bit scary.  Devgn’s Captain Khanna gets expensive watches, a Zippo lighter, and a general alpha swag.

Together they hold the film tightly at two ends, their eyes locked and tugging it in their direction. 

The film has high production value and is visually appealing. Aseem Bajaj’s cinematography – who has shot the film in moody shades of blue, and is creative with some stock scenes – together with Dharmendra Sharma’s editing and VFX by Devgn’s own company are first rate.

Full marks to Ajay Devgn for directing a taut, tense, edge-of-the-seat thriller. He really didn’t need to sully his finest moment yet as a director with a cheap marketing gimmick.

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