From Riding a Bullock Cart To Owning an Airline: The True Story of Capt. Gopinath

soorarai pottru captain Gopinath

Starring Suriya in the leading role, Amazon Prime's 'Soorarai Pottru' is based on the incredible journey of Air Deccan founder Capt. G. R. Gopinath, a retired Army captain, who founded India's first low-cost airline.

‘Soorarai Pottru’ is a Tamil movie starring actor Suriya, scheduled to release on Amazon Prime on November 12. Going by the trailer, the movie is an action-packed drama about a man from a village who takes on politicians, business people, and bureaucrats to fulfil his dream of launching a low-cost airline service.

There is quite a lot of drama, many tears, a near-crash and of course, actor Suriya’s trademark swag.

Artistic license aside, the movie is actually based on Captain G R Gopinath, the pioneer of low-cost aviation in India. The movie was inspired by his 2011 autobiography ‘Simply Fly’, which outlines the journey of a young boy who went from riding a bullock cart to owning an airline.

While perhaps not as dramatic as the film, his vision really did change life in India forever, and he ideas set in stone what most of us take for granted today – a flight to almost any major city in India, for a price every middle-class salaried person can afford.

soorarai pottru captain Gopinath
Captain G R Gopinath, the pioneer of low-cost aviation in India

That was the high. There have been many lows in his life as well, including how that vision ended. And though the movie may choose to skip that, here is his life story in full so far – still quite amazing.

Who is Captain G R Gopinath?

Born in 1951, Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar Gopinath was raised in a small village named Gorur in Karnataka and is the second of eight children. His father, a school teacher and a Kannada novelist, believed that schools were a system of regimentation and decided to teach his son at home.

After a few years of homeschooling, Gopinath was enrolled into 5th standard at a Kannada-medium school. In 1962, he joined the Sainik School, Bijapur, where young boys are trained to join the armed forces.

He further went on to clear his National Defence Academy exams and graduate from the Indian Military Academy. Gopinath spent eight years in the Indian Army and fought in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

soorarai pottru captain Gopinath
Capt. Gopinath before he quit the Indian army.

At the age of 28, he took early retirement from the army. He went on to take a series of entrepreneurial roles such as dairy farmer, sericulture consultant, poultry farmer, hotel owner, Enfield bike dealer, stockbroker, and finally, aviation entrepreneur.

Life as an aviation entrepreneur

Capt. Gopinath’s aviation career started in 1996, and it is divided into three segments.

First, he started a Chartered Helicopter Service under the name – Deccan Aviation. This was aimed at providing Chartered helicopters for VIPs. The service was a hit among many politicians who took Deccan Aviation copters for their travels.

soorarai pottru captain Gopinath
Deccan Aviation’s helicopter service.

After tasting success in this first venture, he decided to try something that benefits the lower-middle class and upper-middle-class. It was a dream because the cost of airfares was so high at the time, one had to be a VIP, or have a company pay for your tickets, to take that mode of transport.

His second venture, Air Deccan was launched in 2003 amid a booming Indian economy with flights from Bangalore and Hubli. To launch this airline, Gopinath invested Rs 5 crore that he gathered from his life savings, friends and family.

By 2006, Air Deccan operated a route network from seven base airports and maintained low turnaround times. The airline offered tickets at 50% the price of other airlines operating at the time, owing to their no-frills approach. This included a uniform economy cabin class and paying for on-air services like food and beverages. Cancellations were also made for an extra price.

Soon, the airline claimed a 22% stake in the Indian aviation industry with a fleet of 43 aircraft making 350 flights every day to more than 60 destinations. They earned revenue through advertisements that were allowed within and outside the aircraft and were well-known for introducing 24-hour call centres through which fliers could book their tickets.

In 2007, the company started to face stiff competition from other airlines, incurred heavy losses, and Gopinath was forced to sell to Liquor Baron Vijay Mallya, who merged it with Kingfisher Airlines and rebranded it as Kingfisher Red.

His third venture was an air-cargo service called Deccan 360. But, that was also shut down in 2013 after its revenue stream was not adequate to breakeven.

soorarai pottru
Deccan 360 launched in 2009.

What does Gopinath do today?

Not only did Air Deccan change the aviation sector in India forever, but it also turned flying into a reality for every middle class Indian. Later, Gopinath went on to contest in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, which turned out to be a failed attempt.

After being an active and provocative columnist for media houses, In 2017, he went on to write another book named “You Cannot Miss This Flight: Essays on Emerging India” which captures Capt Gopinath’s interests and the depth of his commitment.
Where does he live now?

The 68-year-old now lives in Bengaluru with his wife and two children.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)