When a Dream Takes Wing

Saji Thomas flies the aircraft he built
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Weighing 265 kg, Saji Thomas’s aircraft can fly to a height of 13,000 feet at 140 kmph

SAJI THOMAS HAD a dream. He wanted to build his own aircraft and fly it. But there were a few obstacles. For one, he was born deaf. And mute. He was also a school dropout; his parents couldn’t afford his tuition fee after he turned 10. Yet, through sheer perseverance, Thomas first built (with recycled aluminum) and then flew his own twin-seater ultra light aircraft in 2014. At the age of 44.

Thomas’ story checks all the boxes for a blockbuster movie. And that’s exactly what happened. Not one but two Malayalam movies based on his life are going to be released this year. So far, so good? Not really. This is where the trouble began for Thomas. When one film, Ebhy, due to be released first, didn’t credit Thomas for the story, the makers of the second film, Vimanam, (starring Prithwi Raj Sukumaran, which is due for release in June) and Thomas decided to move court, filing a joint litigation.

“We had reached an agreement with Saji for the exclusive biopic rights,” says Pradeep Nair, director of Vimanam. “They (makers of Ebhy) announced their film as one based on the life of Saji even without consulting him. When Saji raised an objection, they made some changes in the story, and now they claim that their film has nothing to do with Saji’s life.”

The legal battle to establish Thomas’ right over his own life story was fought, but unsuccessfully. The Munsif Court of Ernakulam refused to grant an injunction to hold the release of Ebhy—directed by Sreekanth Murali, starring Vineeth Srinivasan. Two films, two stars, two scripts. One story. The last of which is so good that it’s worth going over again. It begins with the (near) impossible dream, of course.

Since he was a child, Thomas had a passion for machines. He used to make cardboard models of cars, buses and aeroplanes— the last of which he had never seen upclose; only in the skies from his village on the hills. Thomas studied in a special school for physically challenged children where he claims to have spent more time in the motor room than in the classroom. When his father pulled him out of school in Class VII, Thomas began repairing television sets to help put food on the table. Then when he started making dish antennas from scratch, he started making a name in his village for being a champ with machines.

At the age of 15, Thomas first got to see a flying machine from up close. Two helicopters arrived at the village’s rubber plantations to spray pesticide. While all the other villagers (children included) watched the choppers land from a distance (perhaps due to their language barrier), Thomas, unafraid of his condition of not being able to speak or hear, approached the helipad and befriended the pilots from Mumbai. They even gave him a ride on the helicopter and their Mumbai addresses on a piece of paper. Thomas claims this was the most memorable day of his life, the day he knew his dream was within touching distance.

Within a few weeks, Thomas ran away from home. He was on his way to Mumbai, of course. The pilots, amazed at his tireless passion for the world of aviation, put him up for a fortnight. They also took him on a tour of the aircraft manufacturing company they worked for and provided him with manuals, books and contact details of major aviation companies he could get in touch with to make his dream come true.

To read those manuals, Thomas first needed to learn English, which he did. He then began collecting spare parts to build his own aircraft. When word spread of his passion, he began getting financial assistance from fellow villagers in the Gulf. With their help, Thomas designed and built the frame of a helicopter in 1991. But that was as far as that project could go as he ran out of funds. So he wrote a letter to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (once a pilot himself) for assistance. He was not disappointed. He soon received a reply which promised help. Thomas was full of hope, until Gandhi was assassinated a few days later.

The twists in his life are stranger than fiction, perhaps why scriptwriters have queued up to tell his story. Just when all hope was lost, Thomas was first introduced to and then employed by SKJ Nair—a retired IAF wing commander. He gave Thomas the resources and financing to go ahead with his dream. It took five years to shape into a semblance of reality.

The body of the ultra light aircraft was made of aluminium plates. The propellers were made of mahogany. Once a German engine was added to the chassis, the dream was complete. Weighing 265 kg, Thomas’s aircraft can fly to a height of 13,000 feet at 140 kmph. It can last an hour in the air with just 16 litres of fuel in the tank. According to SKJ Nair, the aircraft is just as good as any international make. Thomas, though, is still in the process of procuring a licence to fly his own aircraft.

“All the money we earned fuelled this project of my husband’s,” says Maria, Thomas’ wife. “Because of that, we still continue to live in a shack.” But that is not making the fully supportive wife sad. “Saji has spent his entire life dedicated to achieving his dream. It hurts both of us when a story about making that dream come true is not credited to him.”