Akshay Kumar promises to have lived the life of Mathunny Mathews in his head while essaying the real character in the current Bollywood flick Airlift. Mathunny Mathews (popularly called Toyota Sunny), at 80, is indisposed but pleased the actor has observed his attempts, along with that of several others, in their herculean job of organizing and coordinating the evacuation of 1, 70,000 stranded Indians during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The picture is the story of the heroic attempts, of India’s, and with him in lead greatest, record-setting humanitarian evacuation in the history of the world. Indians have been caught by the movie by their heart.
Little did Sunny, who hails from Kumbanad in Pathanamthitta and who began life in Kuwait as a 20-year old, know that such patriotic fervour would be stoked by his story.
My dad has not seen the movie, but he is fairly mental that it is becoming very popular. I am proud that it was made and in turn has found some recognition for my dad’s attempts and have seen it. Other people also must be credited and of course, he's not alone in this,” says Mathunny’s son, James.
Ranjit Katiyal (Akshay Kumar), is a powerful businessman in Kuwait, who with his contacts and familiarity with the land, organizes a labor camp that refuges fleeing Indians during the 1990 war. He concurrently negotiates with the Iraqi government and co-ordinates with the Indian government empowering the safe passage of Indians. The whole movement in real life required 488 Air India flights in 59 days and is the greatest humanitarian evacuation on earth.
Popularly referred to as Toyota Sunny, because he started work with the Toyota service possessed by the Al-Sayer Group in Kuwait and went on to retire as its MD in 1989, Sunny came by boat in 1956 to Kuwait. During his long years there he was able to form a good network of well wishers and friends. He held many top positions in various social organizations and became chairman of the Indian School in Kuwait. He was among the founding members of the Indian Art’s Circle that brought Indians. He motivated several relatives and families from his village and other areas of Kerala to move to Kuwait and forge a comfortable support fuelled by the petroleum market.
“That is the reason he felt responsible for the people when the war broke out and took it upon himself to help in the scenario,” says James.
James, who was 25 at the time, was during the invasion in Kuwait. He remembers my dad realized that nothing much was occurring towards their relief Once the invasion was the first three weeks. So he took it to go to Baghdad from Kuttanad, now an MLA along with me, Thomas Chandy and Harbhajan Vedi, another businessman. He was transferring some laborers into Jordan and had a great equation with an engineering firm. He requested me to go with them, so I managed to fly out on the first Air India flight to Mumbai.”
Sunny afterward had meetings with the Indian Ambassador to Iraq in Baghdad and returned to Kuwait. Once back he found that though basic services were available, the food was running out along with water and other essentials. This compelled him to organize lodging for others and laborers in big compounds and schools. A committee was formed, and they took over this duty. Once this was affirmed, he started formulating a plan to move all Indians to Jordan. In the meantime one ship did make it to Basra (Iraq) and some Indians were moved on that boat to Dubai and onward to India. External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujraltook some folks back with him when he came to see Kuwait.
James was able to organize transportation for this particular mass movement of evacuees to Jordan says that his dad being in the vehicle business was on ground that is familiar and therefore. He negotiated a plan with the UN, Indian authorities and Iraqi transporters to transfer all Indians and into refugee camps. “This meant 60 people per bus, ten trips per bus over 1,200 and around 200 buses km one way; it was a logistical wonder and a mammoth task,” says James.
The committee organized dilemmas like pick-up points, allocation of individuals, move, payment to operators as most people had to pay for this (the needy were covered by the committee) security, convoy organization and stamping of passports. The closing tie-up was with the UN while Air India organized flights in a manner that is scheduled and organized for camps to be created in Jordan and the folks were moved into these camps. Eventually, Sunny and his team came to Dubai by ship and flew back to Kuwait.
“My dad came on his own, to make a life here. He's a go getter, a guy that is religious and strong says James, who was in touch with the movie team. “Of course, my father is just part of the narrative in which the bureaucrats in New Delhi, the Air India pilots, the committee members and the efforts of the Indian government had a huge role to play. Otherwise, an operation of such scale could never take place,” says James.