Runway 34

India (2022) Dir. Ajay Devgn

“It’s always the pilot’s fault!”

Imagine being hailed a hero for saving the lives of all the passengers on the plane you are piloting only to have this publicly disputed because of a procedural investigation. Quite a blow to the ego I would think.

Captain Vikrant Khanna (Ajay Devgn) is a long serving and highly respected pilot with skill to match his confidence, which borders on arrogance. After six consecutive days flying, Vikrant is keen to return home for his daughter’s six birthday, but has one more flight from Dubai to Cochin to complete. The night before, instead of sleeping Vikrant opts to go clubbing with his friend which takes its toll on him the next morning.

With co-pilot Tanya Albuquerque (Rakul Preet Singh) to rely on, Vikrant sleeps off his hangover during the flight. However, a cyclone in Cochin forces the flight to be diverted, but Vikran chooses Trivandrum instead of the nearer Bengaluru. Unaware the weather is worse in Trivandrum with less visibility, Vikran manages to land the plane with his eyes closed. Afterwards, the airline association wants to know how this happened.

Having not seen the Tom Hanks film Sully I can’t say if there are any similarities content wise between the two films but one thing I do know they share is both are based on real events. In 2015, a plane flying from Doha to Kochi encountered bad weather and had to make a miraculous crash landing, though I have no information if the pilot managed it with his eyes closed like Vikrant did.

And this leaves us wondering how much of the adapted story in Runaway 34 is fiction and how much came from the pens of screenwriters Sandeep Kewlani and Aamil Keeyan Khan. With star Ajay Devgn also producing and directing this film, we can take a guess as Vikran is a juicy role with its heroic first half and victim second half. I may be a little cynical on this but it is Bollywood after all, where they don’t do things by halves.

Vikran is not a likeable character to be frank, carrying himself with a smugness befitting someone with a gorgeous wife, a great career, peerless skills, the looks and charisma to win everyone over. Oh and he has a photographic memory. Remember that, it becomes crucial to his defence in the investigation hearing in the second half. It is hard to read any sincerity in him during the phone call home to his daughter about her impending birthday he doesn’t want to miss.

The flight and the crash landing takes up the first hour of this 126-minute outing, and doesn’t miss any of the genre clichés – the sick passenger on her way for treatment, the uptight businessman thinking about himself, the YouTube influencer (okay, that is a new one), the flight control worker with a health issue, an inattentive jobsworth, lack of fuel, they are all there.

Because of this, the fact vs. fiction ratio comes into question but Devgn makes sure it is a taut, dramatic, and eventful trip from start to finish. The actual disaster with the heroic act is very well done – horribly tense via the pacey editing, and visually exciting by being set at night, with rain lashing against the cockpit windows. Vikran, as cocky as he is, keeps his cool whilst Tanya starts to lose it and the control tower question his choice of runway, but the lives of 150 passengers are at stake.

Now lauded a hero, Vikran is surprisingly humble but the airline association need to ask questions about how and why this happened, and not even heroes are exempt. Both Vikran and Tanya give their side of events and all seems fine, until a breathalyser test is positive for Vikran, who swears he never touched a drop that day. This means bringing in the formidable head of the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau Narayan Vedant (Amitabh Bachchan) to investigate.

Just like the crash sequence, this provides more compelling drama, this time reliant on the performances during the verbal sparring rather than visual spectacle. The pendulum swings in Vedant’s favour all too often, and we wonder how Vikran can counter this; the result may be surprising but unpredictable for this type of story, assuredly influenced by the facts of the original true events.

Like an Indian Claude Littner, Vedant’s taste for the minutiae is equivalent to Vikran’s photographic memory, pitting two cerebral skills against each other in a veritable battle of wills. Vedant has all the evidence, Vikran has all the answers but making one concede to the other drives the conflict, with the truth behind the circumstantial evidence often not what we expect, whilst we find ourselves in awe of how a throwaway line becomes critical to Vikran’s defence.

Except the script falters in the second half with the injection of a subplot involving the possible merger of the airline Vikran works for, meaning the goodwill of his actions must be maintained to force a good stock price. The boss has his troubleshooter fix it to ensure the case goes Vikran’s way and the airline is absolved, but suddenly thrust into the story then left to simmer in the background, it becomes less of a dramatic factor.

Presentation wise, this is Bollywood in attitude but Hollywood in application, showing restraint with the colour palette and eschewing incongruous musical numbers, though a montage of Vikran strutting to work is like a music video. Performances are strong and well measured – the legendary Amitabh Bachchan is an absolute beast in the inquiry scenes as Vedant, whilst Ajay Devgn can’t decide if Vikran is an overconfident soul or a cocky git with his stream of one-liners.

Runaway 34, for all its niggling faults, is a well-crafted, astutely realised dramatisation of this unique real life incident, that rewards the viewer’s investment of it lengthy run time with one of the stronger and most consistent entries in the Bollywood canon in 2022.

Available on Amazon Prime UK now.

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