Ajay Devgn’s Runway 34, which he directed, produced and stars in, is nowhere as ludicrous as Heropanti 2, the Tiger Shroff vehicle that also released this week. But if you watch Hindi films regularly, ludicrous is often preferable to dourly uninteresting. Indignation at least keeps you awake.
Captain Vikrant Khanna (Devgn) is a commercial airline pilot, embarking on a flight from Dubai to Kochi. They encounter some turbulence on the way, which becomes worse as they near their destination. Vikrant takes a difficult decision: they’ll divert to Trivandrum instead of the normal backup, Bangalore. A warning from air traffic control—cyclone incoming, don’t land in Trivandrum—goes undelivered. By then the plane is almost out of fuel and Vikrant must execute an incredibly tricky landing on runway 34. He’s successful, the plane coming to rest at the end of a precipice. One hundred and fifty passengers are saved (one dies of a heart attack later, which shouldn't be relevant, but, for grossly sentimental reasons, is).
So far, so Sully. But Runway 34 isn’t content to steal from just one Hollywood film. It begins with Vikrant partying in Dubai the night before his flight. Later, we see him—apparently—sneak a drink mid-air. He chain-smokes, so we’re encouraged to think he has a drinking problem as well. Once the flight takes off, he tells his copilot, Tanya Albuquerque (Rakul Preet Singh), to take over, and goes to sleep. The 2012 film Flight had a similar setup—unstable pilot, turbulent flight, miracle landing. The big difference is that, in that film, Denzel Washington’s pilot really does have a drinking problem; the film reckons with it honestly after the landing. But if you think Devgn is going to end up as anything less than an exemplary hero in his own production… well, you're the film's intended audience.
Runway 34 is based on an actual incident from 2015, which involved a ‘blind’ landing and a subsequent civil investigation. This was how Sully was structured as well, down to a crucial scene in a flight simulator. In Devgn’s film, investigator Narayan Vedant (Amitabh Bachchan) tears Vikrant and Tanya to shreds in court. But he’s so unlikeable that the viewer has no choice but to root for Devgn’s taciturn, weary bore. Singh looks terrified throughout and breaks down frequently. Boman Irani plays a Vijay Mallya-ish tycoon; in the scene where he spars verbally with the owner of another airline, they do shots and smoke cigars like Bond villains.
It's to the film’s credit that the high tension of the flight is believable despite atrocious CGI. A Jasleen Royal song is deployed at the worst possible moment—and it somehow works. But the last hour is an unrelieved drag, with Bachchan’s gleeful prodding, Singh’s weeping and Devgn’s tired dutifulness. Vikrant’s parting shot, to a young pilot asking for advice, is, “Always take care of your passengers.” Had Runway 34 cared for its passengers, this flight might have been more bearable.