Lucknow boy Kushal Srivastava calls 1999 a year to remember. Fresh out of school, he had made it to the Indian Air Force as a non-commissioned officer and was waiting for his joining letter when the Kargil War broke out in May. It left the lanky teenager on tenterhooks. The ensuing months saw the reluctant newsie (as he calls himself) glued to his television set, 24×7. He keenly followed the war updates from Kargil and Drass way more than keeping a tab on the runs scored by the Men in Blue at the seventh edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup in England. “The Kargil War against Pakistan had overridden my love for cricket, and it remains like that to date. Cricket reminds me of that war. Sitting many miles away from the war front in my home, I remember how it felt so personal. I would cringe every time a soldier was martyred in Kargil; the fatalities in LoC were devastating because it felt like losing one of my own to the enemy,” he recounts.
The only good thing that he remembers of that year is how Pakistan collapsed to a meagre 132 in the final, leading to an eight-wicket win for Australia in the World Cup, and how this loss at the Lord’s matched its fate on the war front in Kargil, this time at the hands of Indian soldiers. Every year since 1999, July 26, the day the Kargil war ended, is celebrated as the Vijay Diwas. Srivastava, who went on to join IAF on December 23, 1999, served in the logistics department till 2006 and landed on the cinematic horizon with his directorial debut Vodka Diaries, featuring Kay Kay Menon, Mandira Bedi and Raima Sen, followed by his production debut The Job in 2018. Still an Airman at heart, he had something up his sleeve to commemorate the 21st anniversary of Kargil War. Days later, on the eve of the Independence Day, he went on to announce his next film, Golden Arrows; Rashmi Sharma of Pink fame is producing the film.
On the occasion of the 88th anniversary of the Indian Air Force Day, we caught up with Srivastava, who took us down the memory lane, reminiscing his good old days in the air force, besides giving us a sneak-peek into his upcoming project.
Q1. What are your memories of this day?
A. It is the most important day of the year for me, and means more than my birthday, even though I am not in the service anymore. During my seven years there, I was a part of the Air Force Day Parade at Palam Air Base on three occasions. And every year, since 2006, I have made it a point to be there as a spectator. It gives me unbridled joy. During those days, my fellow air warriors would perform funny plays, and I used to direct them. This year, I am working on my next that is my, a soldier’s tribute to the two greats of IAF – former Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, and fighter pilot Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja – who was martyred in the Kargil War. They are my real-life heroes.
Q2. How did you get into films?
A. Films were always on my radar, but I was more enamoured by the craft of filmmaking. I was barely 11 when my uncle Raju Srivastava took me along to N Chandra’s film set in Mumbai. I saw a shot being canned for the first time in my life, and that image stayed on with me for years. And even though I was serving in IAF, in the heart of hearts, I knew my real calling was filmmaking. I started as an assistant director. My first film as AD was A Flat featuring Jimmy Shergill, under Anjum Rizvi Productions. I assisted JP Dutta, and also Anurag Basu. I directed Kaafir, my first short film at MET College, Mumbai, which bagged the Best Short film award. The real learning happened under filmmaker JP Dutta; he is my film school who taught me the ethics of filmmaking. He always used to tell that there should be honesty and integrity in your work, which is missing in most of the masala films that hit the theatres on Fridays these days. So now I’m not too fond of half of the movies made by our film industry. The journey since then has been quite eventful and interesting, and I have also realised that every obstacle is a challenge. One should stay focused and keep working towards one’s goal.
Q3. Your next cinematic outing, Golden Arrows, seems like a big-ticket project. Tell us more about the subject.
A. Golden Arrows is a war film about a squadron then led by Wing Commander Dhanoa. The film is dedicated to Sqn Ldr Ahuja. It displays the glory and the courage of our fighter pilots during the most challenging air war ever fought. Yes, production-wise, it’s a big-budget film with a large canvas. That’s the requirement of the subject.
Q4. How did you zero-in on this subject?
A. Fighter jets have always fascinated me. Those dragons are the most amazing things in the world. Going back on the subject, Golden Arrows was raised on October 1, 1951, in Ambala and was based in Bathinda during the Kargil War. Living up to their motto, Arise Forever, they flew in the most challenging and highest terrains in the world, where flying and bombing was impossible by any air force in the world.
When a co-pilot had to eject amidst the war, Sqn Ldr Ahuja decided to go beyond the call of duty to ‘Never leave his wingman behind’, but while doing so, he was hit by Stinger Missile and had to lay down his life. He was awarded the Vir Chakra for his bravery.
The primary role of Golden Arrows was to do photo recce. But when Dhanoa, a trained fighter pilot, lost Ahuja, he converted his aircraft to a bombing one. He set a new benchmark in the world by going for maximum bombing missions in the war and leading India to victory, hence making Golden Arrows the most decorated squadron in the IAF during the war.
Dhanoa later became the Chief of the Indian Air Force and was behind another successful operation, the Balakot strikes. As Chief of Air Force, Dhanoa paid tributes to Sqn Ldr Ahuja and other martyrs of Kargil War by flying a ‘missing man’ formation in a Mig-21. The newly inducted Rafale aircraft is a part of the resurrected Golden Arrows.
The heroism of ACM Dhanoa, the sacrifice of Sqn Ldr Ahuja and the camaraderie of Golden Arrows is unprecedented. Kargil was the toughest air war ever fought in the world, we as Indians should be proud of it, but instead, most of us are unaware of it. Hence, this is my tribute to the air warriors, albeit on the big screen.
Q5. What is that one factor from the life of the former ACM Dhanoa that stood out for you?
A. He is an initiator and a risk-taker and forges his unique path, aims high, and reaches his destination come what may. He is a living example of how luck favours the brave.
Q6. How significant were your personal experiences in the making of this film?
A. The heroic but not-so-known story of the Kargil War had been simmering within me for all these 21 years. It flows in my blood. I have lived it. It was just a matter of time, and I am quite excited to see this dream come true. It is for the first time in the world that an ex-soldier will make a war film.
Q7. How difficult or easy is it to make a war film during the current situation?
A. If you are honest, then nothing else matters. What matters is whether you are giving your 100% in the given situation, and then rest everything else will follow.
Q8. What is the learning from the recent releases – Gunjan Saxena, Uri, Avrodh – that came in handy while prepping for Golden Arrows?
A. Kargil War, as we know, was high-altitude warfare. Both sides fought it on mountainous terrain. But what is untold is how IAF’s operation Safed Sagar was instrumental in winning the war. It was for the first time that IAF had air power at the height of 32,000 feet.
Golden Arrows was a photo-reconnaissance squadron of IAF, then led by Wing Commander Dhanoa and Sqn Ldr Ahuja. Technically, reconnaissance in force is a means of obtaining information on the enemy’s disposition, and for probing enemy defenses for gaps. In a layman’s language, the Airmen fly and click the pictures of the enemy. Then they provide the exact location of the enemy to the bombers and the Army. In the Kargil War, they helped identify the Pakistani troops and Mujahideens, and bomb enemy locations.
Also, Golden Arrows doesn’t have a reference point. We have not produced any air force war film in India yet. Commercially, they may be good films, but as an insider, I could only see what mistakes I have to avoid.
Q9. How much does Mr Dutta’s filmmaking style influence your cinematic sensibilities, especially when it comes to war dramas?
A. He has a knack for bringing out the humane part of the war, and that’s Mr Dutta’s innate and effortless talent. I have always admired his attention to details and how he deals with human emotions in his films. Most of his films have been multi-starrers, but he is known for giving equal weightage to each character. You will never feel that character X was in any way less than character Y or Z. I strive to imbibe that quality in my films. I hope I succeed.
Q10. What is behind the scene action that is currently on?
A. As we speak, casting director Mukesh Chabbra is busy finalising the details. It requires a lot of meticulous planning. It is a two-hero film, so we need to two male leads to essay the roles of ACM Dhanoa and Sqn Ldr Ahuja. Meanwhile, the remaining work is also in progress. The film will go on the floors later this year, and we are aiming for a 2021 release.
Q11. What filmmaking lessons did you gather while making Vodka Diaries that you think will help you in upping the game while directing this one?
A. Vodka Diaries was like an exam. It was conceived purely out of my love for thrillers. The script was written keeping in mind, Kay Kay Menon. Once, he was on board, rest everything fell into place. It was a complicated subject, and that’s the reason why I went for it. I like challenges, maybe that’s something I have imbibed from my stint with IAF. The film helped me prove my mettle. Now I find it easier to convince people.
(The article was first published here: https://www.apotpourriofvestiges.com/2020/10/fighter-jets-have-always-fascinated-me.html)