When Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait during the gulf war in 1990, more than one lakh Indians were stranded there. The entire country was in a state of terror and the residents suffered great tragedies and loss. This was when the Indian government came forward to rescue the Indian community and airlifted over 1,70,000 people with the help of 488 flights in just 59 days. After everyone was rescued, Air India’s name was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the civil airline that had evacuated the most people till date.
And that’s what the latest Bollywood movie, Airlift, is about – the unsung heroes who masterminded the evacuation plan.
But Ranjit Katyal, the character played by Akshay Kumar in the movie, does not actually exist. According to the director Raja Krishna Menon, the character is an amalgamation of two gentlemen, Sunny Mathews and Vedi, who formed an unofficial committee to oversee the evacuation because they knew that Indians were not safe.
A day before the Airlift released, Sunny Mathews’ granddaughter wrote a post about her grandfather on Facebook, with old paper clippings about his bravery.
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“Talk to any returnee from Kuwait, who has undergone the ordeal of having escaped from Kuwait and he’ll tell you about Toyota Mathews. Mathews is the person who has helped many Indians by either organising their transport, or giving them some money which would come handy on the way, or more importantly, providing them with food and water for the arduous journey. For thousands of Indians stranded in Kuwait, Mathews has been some sort of messiah,” says one of the old reports in the picture.
The evacuation was very difficult because many people did not want to leave their well settled lives behind, and many did not have their passports and other travel documents as they had handed them over to their employers.
“The first challenge was to prepare over 100,000 travel documents. Delhi had sent two planes for evacuation. Ships began arriving a lot later. With nearly a lakh people stranded, I had to look at the alternative of bulk evacuation by road. Sunny Mathews, an extremely resourceful Indian working in Toyota, did a great job negotiating with private bus operators for evacuation via Iraq to Jordan by road,” Ashoke Kumar Sengupta, the then officer-in-charge of the Indian embassy in Kuwait, had told The Times of India in 2014.