Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Shekhar Ravjiani
Director: Ram Madhvani
The tragic story of Neerja Bhanot, who died while saving the lives of others, is full of tears and heartbreak. What we want to know, going into ‘Neerja’, the film based on the last two days of her 23 years on this earth, is : will it do justice to that pretty young woman with extraordinary courage?
Short answer : yes.
We know Neerja Bhanot’s story, but are curious nevertheless to see how it unfolds on the silver screen.
Will the director go in for over-dramatic scenes in the name of ‘creative liberty’? Or, are we going to witness a film that is too ‘filmy’ to be inspired by ‘real events’?
Perhaps the brickbats a recent film faced prompted the filmmakers to flash a disclaimer at the start: The film is not a biography or a documentary on the brave Pan Am air hostess. For a second, it almost seems like a warning.
But minutes into the film, all doubts are swept away. The movie is likely to be memorable for most, especially for Sonam Kapoor fans.
The film is set on September 5, 1986, when the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 takes off from then-Bombay. Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor), flying as chief purser for the first time, is readying for her morning flight while four terrorists affiliated to Palestine’s Abu Nidal Organisation are offering their last prayer in Lyari, Karachi.
The atmosphere of dread and violence is created well, for the most part. We see the hijackers brutally put down any hint of resistance. We see the terrified passengers cowering in their seats. We see the crew being cowed into submission, being jabbed repeatedly by AK 47s. And we see the exact moment when Neerja draws upon her memories of being defeated in a past life, and reaching out for steely resilience: most importantly, we see Kapoor do this, believably.
The terrorists manage to board the flight with their ammunition, but the full extent of their plan is reduced when Neerja alerts the pilots, who run away. The real trouble then becomes the boarding zone where 360 passengers are left at the mercy of some trigger happy cynics.
Here is where an ordinary model-turned-air hostess rises to the occasion and the rest is history.
Neerja shows Madhvani’s meticulous planning as a director, even though it tilts in favour of some melodrama. The film arrives straight to the point and starts building a tension that remains with the audience till the end. Parallel narratives between Mumbai and Karachi bring out the conflict that ensues, and you subconsciously begin rooting for Neerja.
Minus the songs and the excessive schmaltz, ‘Neerja’ could have been outstanding. But still, the film holds, and hold us with it. Both Shabana Azmi and Tikku, as the parents hoping for the best and dreading the worst for their ‘Laado’ (Neerja’s ‘pet name’), are excellent. They shine a light on the tragically-cut-short life of their daughter, a true inspirational heroine whose deeds need more than a memorial. They need to be remembered. I came out of the theatre, wet-eyed.
Here, the power of a good script is also evident. Actors know their marks and bring out little details with ease.
At 122-minutes, the film stretches towards the end, but you are helplessly ensnared in its magic.
The writer has crafted Neerja in such a way that most of her personality traits become visible: Neerja loves Rajesh Khanna, so does her family, and this star-fan connection becomes a defining moment in the film. You just marvel at the lucidity with which it happens.
It’s an effectively narrated story that we all know, for why else will you look forward to unraveling a plot that has been widely documented. It makes you rise and salute Neerja, the extraordinary story of an ordinary person.
And, who could sum it up better than her favourite star Kaka: Zindagi lambi nahi badi honiye chahiye babu moshay (Anand, 1971). In these times of misinterpreted jingoism, Neerja teaches us the real meaning of standing tall.
Neerja is a milestone in Sonam Kapoor’s career. Not just because it’s a good film, but because she carries it entirely on her shoulder. She looks earnest, scared, benevolent and bold, all at the same time. You should see her in the scene where a terrorist frisks her: She aces it with a panache seldom seen in mainstream Hindi films. Shabana Azmi is very impressive as Neerja’s mother, her grip over emotional scenes are quite visible. The other person who deserves applause is Yogendra Tiku who plays Neerja’s father. The emotions reflect so swiftly on his face that you can see your dear ones there.
Such films where the filmmakers need to work in the same time and space zone are difficult to execute, but you’ll be surprised at the finesse with which Madhvani has shown most sides of Neerja’s personality. She falls, rises, falls again and rises again, until she emerges as that one name which will be associated with Pan Am Flight 73 forever.
Listen: The real voice of Neerja Bhanot: