Heroic IAF pilot behind Bollywood biopic speaks out

Air Commodore Kariyadil Cheriyan Kuruvilla poses with wife Grace.

For retired Air Commodore Kariyadil Cheriyan Kuruvilla, whose flying exploits in the 1971 war form the basis for a new Bollywood film, truth is more fantastic than fiction.

Kuruvilla (74) cuts a boisterous figure, tall, burly and affable. However, his experiences in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war were anything but humorous and nearly cost him his skin, he said. 

It is this brush with death that has attracted the attention of Vijay Gutte, debut director of the 2019 film, The Accidental Prime Minister

While Gutte was unavailable to talk to DH, Kuruvilla explained that the filmmaker is keen to make a movie that reflects the reality of the times. Although, at times, Kuruvilla’s true-to-life tale skirts the envelope of the fantastic.

In 1971, Kuruvilla was a 26-year flying officer in the IAF’s 222 Squadron, equipped with brand new Sukhoi Su-7 ‘Fitters’, a low-level dogfighter. At the onset of the war, the squadron, operating out of Halwara, Punjab, was pitted against Pakistani forces. On December 6, while returning from a pre-dawn mission, Kuruvilla’s flight was directed towards a massive incoming column of Pakistani armour. 

Racing at an altitude of 100 feet over a mass of tanks, vehicles and men, Kuruvilla opened fire with his cannons. Emerging from the maelstrom, he turned back to make a second run when he ran into a curtain of flak. Hit, his Sukhoi erupted into flames and veered away from the Indian frontier. Kuruvilla ejected, badly bruising his shoulder and fracturing his right ankle. He came down in a patch of elephant grass and was captured three hours later by a Pakistani patrol.

“My captors wanted to execute me, but their Baluch sergeant was determined to keep their prisoner — me — alive,” Kuruvilla said. “The stereotype of Pakistanis is that they are bloodthirsty and cruel, but let me say that I found many who were extraordinarily humane and honest,” he added.

Kuruvilla, however, reserves little of these sentiments for Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, whom he pins down for neglecting Indian prisoners of war, adding that it “is a neglect of servicepersons, which continues to this day”. When asked if Indian veterans were receiving their due praise and respect, Kuruvilla took a long time to answer, his eyes moistening over. “Zero,” was all he said.

The film, titled Vayu Sena, will start shooting in February in Serbia and Georgia. Bollywood actor Emraan Hashmi has been signed on to star in the film, joined possibly by actress Kajal Aggarwal.

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