Indian bureaucrats can be indifferent to entrepreneurs who want to give wings to their dreams. In the Tamil film Soorarai Pottru, which recently released on an OTT platform, you get to see our Kafkaesque bureaucracy at play.
Based on the life of Captain G.R. Gopinath, founder of the now-defunct low-cost airline Air Deccan, the film seems to have hit a chord among viewers for its feel-good message about a young, earnest man from a village without money or connections, who successfully starts an airline.
While watching the film, you feel frustrated as actor Surya (who has essayed his best role yet) battles with an unyielding bureaucracy to get an airline licence. He is understandably impatient to get his airline off the ground, but the bureaucrat deliberately plays a cruel cat and mouse game with him. In desperation, he uses a radio journalist to get access to the President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, and begs him to intervene, which he miraculously does!
This is not what transpired in reality, however. In a quick chat with The Federal, Bengaluru-based Captain G.R. Gopinath admits that though he had encountered corrupt bureaucrats and politicians along his eventful journey, he did not barge into the President’s office. (Incidentally, the late Abdul Kalam has penned the foreword to Gopinath’s biography, Simply Fly, calling him a “pace-setter for the entire aviation business in India.”)
Explains Gopinath, “I did not get my licence in the way it is portrayed. The film took creative liberties but, in a way, the President represents all that is good, while the bureaucracy stands for obstacles.”
So, how did this ex-army captain and ex-agriculturist get the airline licence despite powerful cabals in the aviation business?
He hedges a bit to say, “You have to keep knocking on many doors before one will open to enable you to fly. I have seen corruption under both the Congress and the BJP rule. Finally, it took one minister to decide not to trouble an ex-army officer like me and give me the licence.”
It took him and his friend three years to get the licence. He recollects, “My friend and partner, Captain Samuel and I had to keep flying to Delhi and Mumbai. We hardly had any money, and had to mortgage my friend’s small apartment. You need to have that kind of conviction, which you cannot fake. Truly, you need to be fully invested in your dream.”
Gopinath, son of a school teacher from Gorur village in Karnataka, was completely driven by this dream. It is this obsession and mad ardour to start a low-cost airline against all odds, is what Surya captures in the film.
Agreeing that the film effectively conveys the essence of his “trials, tribulations and triumphs,” he adds that it had to be “dramatised” to fit the Tamil Nadu context.
In fact, Simply Fly was largely written for rural youth, he clarifies. “I wanted to tell them not to become cynical or sceptical. And, to believe you don’t need money or connections to succeed in this country. It helps to have that but if you are possessed by a dream and if you have shraddha (sincerity and faith) – you can win,” he says.
Besides making it affordable for the common man to fly with his ₹1 tickets, Gopinath strove to open up air connection routes to Tier-3 cities in India.
So, what went wrong with Air Deccan, which had all the right intentions?
Replies Gopinath, “It was a question of timing, we had expanded at breakneck speed. When we started, fuel prices were $20 a barrel but after four years the fuel went up seven times to $155 a barrel. The overheads shot up, airports were congested and the economic boom had not percolated to regional towns.” More airlines entered the fray generating excess capacity for a short time and a major hiccup was sourcing engineers and pilots.
In Simply Fly, he writes that Deccan was losing money, flights were being cancelled and delayed. “By the time we got one problem fixed, another raised its head. Popular sentiment was no longer in our favour. Part of the problem was of our making, partly that circumstances were ranged against us…”
They lost pilots and engineers to competition, he says in the book. “One morning, he received the news that a Ahmedabad–Bengaluru flight had to be cancelled because the pilot and engineer had quit and joined Kingfisher Airlines.”
All these constraints led Gopinath to merge his airline with Kingfisher. “I wanted to make the airline stronger and conserve our resources. My investors too were putting pressure on me and it had become difficult to stay afloat,” he recounts.
On Mallya, he says: “He is a nice likeable guy, and a good friend. He’s flamboyant and made mistakes. The film exaggerates my dislike for him.” (In the film, Surya turns down an offer made by a flashy character who embodies Mallya and even calls him an imbecile). However, Gopinath claims the merger helped his investors make a lot of money.
But, why does India still not have a viable low-cost airline? Gopinath replies, “Technically, that may be right. But the concept of low-cost fares lives on today. After Air Deccan started the ₹1 pricing to break the class barrier, it was meant to trigger a consumer shift in behaviour. And create a tectonic shift away from trains. We have achieved that. If you book early enough today, you can get a ticket to Delhi for ₹4,500 to ₹5,000 from Chennai or Bengaluru. Earlier, every ticket was priced at nothing less than ₹12,500 to ₹13,000.”
He disagrees that airlines in India are losing money and folding up. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigo, which runs a good operation, was making a profit. It may not be an ultra-low cost model but they have shown it is possible for an airline to make money. It is not easy to build an airline with 250 aircraft. But, they have huge cash reserves of ₹15,000 crore, and a market cap at ₹50,000 crore,” he says.
Gopinath’s second attempt to revive Air Deccan under the government’s UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik) scheme, has also come a cropper after COVID. They were in partnership with companies in Gujarat and Orissa but it has been difficult to restart after government shut down the services, he admits.
“The smaller the aircraft, the higher is the cost of operation per seat, and if you get bigger aircraft, you need more passengers and bigger airports,” he says, acknowledging that a viable, regional air connectivity model does not seem feasible right now. His Deccan Charters air taxi venture, however, continues to be active.
Before he had rolled out his airline, he had fought in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Also, Gopinath was highly successful in sericulture farming, winning the Rolex award; has run an agricultural consultancy and even a Udupi Hotel!
He had started a helicopter company before Air Deccan. “This is not in the film which is good enough that it shows my roller-coaster ride of not giving up, he says.
On the question of the identity of an insecure airline owner, played by Paresh Rawal, who troubles Surya (Gopinath’s character) to the extent of even tampering with his aircraft, he refuses to comment.
He says, “In my book, I clearly mention who my competitors were and the politicians around at that time. (The only private airlines operating that time were Naresh Goyal’s Jet Airways and Sahara.) Largely, there were forces opposing me and the incidents may not have happened like in the film. But almost like a scene in the film, one of our aircraft coming from France was sent back midway to delay our launch.”
Gopinath has also dabbled in politics and stood for elections. However, he says, it requires a certain mental make-up and a different kind of obsession which he did not have.
Will Air Deccan fly again? “Never say never, the dream is still there,” says this irrepressible serial entrepreneur.