Synopsis – Neerja is a portrayal on the life of the courageous Neerja Bhanot, who sacrificed her life while protecting the lives of 359 passengers on the Pan Am flight 73 in 1986. The flight was hijacked by a terrorist organization.
My Take – A year back when it was announced that a biopic based on the life of slain air hostess Neerja Bhanot was being made it all hopes where high as it is surely a story that deserved to be told. Neerja was a brave air hostess who lost her life saving many others during the unforgettable Pan Am hijacking of 1986 at the Karachi Airport by members of the Abu Nidal Organization. The courage she showed, is something very special especially at such a tender age, she could have saved her own life first, but she did not. Neerja is a real hero, a real life superhero. Honestly words cant describe her bravery. She was awarded bravery awards posthumously in India, Pakistan, and USA. When it comes to hijacking dramas, the first and the best film that comes to my mind is United 93, a terrifying drama set on the only flight that crashed on an empty paddock during the infamous 9/11 attacks. As far as I can remember, Bollywood’s last attempt in this genre was the mediocre Shiny Ahuja film, Hijack. But signing on Sonam Kapoor as the lead seemed like a bad choice. The lead actress in question is known mostly as fashionista, whose dressing sense makes more headlines than her acting laurels & her choice of films. But nine years after she debuted as a coy girl in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, she has come of age. She might not have seem the best choice for a film like this one, but she will still make you root for her with her honesty and vulnerability. She bares her soul in this performance which any day, trumps over finesse. While Bollywood biopics have the tendency to put masala in stories of real life personalities, this one thankfully avoids that! If Neerja was a hero in real life, director Ram Madhvani is the real hero of the film. It is to his credit that he has made such a compelling drama that will keep you on the edge of your seats. The entire hijacking situation is so brilliantly shot that you feel that you are a part of the life threatening drama. The tension you feel in the scenes are palpable, especially when the terrorists realize there is no hope for them and they become reckless. The documentary style camera work heightens the sense of claustrophobia in you.
The story follows Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor), Pan Am air hostess and part time model, had everything that she needed to be happy, a supportive family, including a doting mother (Shabana Azmi) and a caring friend (Shekhar Ravjiani), who has been in love with her for a while now. She was also a huge Rajesh Khanna fan. However, she had been involved in an abusive marriage before that nearly destroyed her spirit. The film begins one day prior to that infamous hijacking. Neerja had just been promoted as the head purser of the ill-fated flight, and she was seen celebrating with her family at a society function. At the same, in Karachi, five terrorists were preparing themselves for their dastardly mission. The next day, when Neerja’s flight had a stopover at Karachi, the terrorists forcibly entered the airfield and hijacked the plane, with the intention of flying it to Cyprus. However, Neerja warned the pilots who follow protocols and abandon cockpit. With no one to fly the plane, the terrorists took the passengers for ransom and demanded the pilots back from the authorities. They show that they mean business when they began killing off passengers one by one. It is left to Neerja to calm the passengers and handle the situation without letting it spiral out of control. But you know how it all ends. Ram Madhvani takes on the challenge of retelling Neerja’s story with a fresh perspective, unperturbed by what has already been documented on her. Instead of weaving the narrative on the lines of how a valiant flight attendant sacrificed herself on the line of duty, he makes Neerja a regular girl, who was crushed by her heartbreak, who blossomed in the love of the new man in her life. Her spirit is what the story stays focused on. When you watch the film, it is easy to see where Neerja got her guts from. As her past and present pan out simultaneously in the film, we can notice how well writer Saiwyn Quadras have gauged the woman’s psyche and brought it out in the screenplay. Neerja derives her courage from her own personal experiences and the screenplay tells exactly how she manages to brave the terrorists single-handedly without succumbing to their demands. As the movie paces up towards the grueling 17 hours of hijack, Ram maintains grip for most part. There is the adequate amount of tension with a commendable lack of Bollywood ornamentation, which could have run down the effort. The screenplay is tight and as the director sticks religiously to the written word, the movie meanders very little. For every minute inside the aircraft, the vibe of the film is strained. The terrorists look as menacing as their part adding the right amount of macabre to the screenplay. It might seem a little over dramatized in places but the impact is spot-on.
Luckily, the film stays low on its gore factor, leaving a lot of the brutality to our imagination. The curse of the second half strikes at it due time but doesn’t hit that hard. Yes, the grip loosens, the momentum dips but just then Ram plays his best card. He shifts focus to Neerja’s family, her parents, her lover, her ex-husband, all of which works well for the plot. Madhvani is an ad film-maker and this is his second full-length feature in 13 years, but he handles it with the deftness of a pro. Along with screenwriter Saiwyn Quadras (who also wrote Bhaag Milkha Bhaag), Madhvani weaves an intimate tale about a young woman who finds the courage to stand up to hijackers. The background score is tense and brilliantly done. But where Ram Madhvani actually scores is how he shot the final moments of Neerja’s sacrifice – intense yet emotionally wrought. If those scenes don’t bring tears from your eyes, your heart is definitely made of stone. Despite her limitations Sonam is the heart and soul of the film. This is a role that she can show her detractors and ask them to just shut up! She is terrific, especially in the second half, where her eyes speak a lot, of fear, of courage. The way she displays her vulnerability, and bravery on screen is completely awe inspiring. Its her career best act. Watch out for the scene, when she hides the American passports fearlessly. Shabana Azmi, who plays Neerja’s mother, is in her understated best as she takes the viewer through their middle class household of simple hopes, joys and laughs. The film’s best scene comes from her as she talks about how much she misses her daughter. Yogendra Tiku, who plays Sonam’s father in the film, is another actor to look out for. In his debut film, composer Shekhar Ravjiani (from the musical duo Vishal-Shekar) is pretty likable in his small role. The actors playing the terrorists totally look their part, especially the one playing Khalil. On the whole, ‘Neerja‘ leaves a haunting impact. You are terrorized, you are heartbroken, you are overwhelmed but mostly you are deeply influenced by her strength and courage. More than anything else, Neerja as a film is inspiring. Finally a Salute to the real Neeraj Bhanot, thank you for being brave, when every one else was scared, you were a true hero. Highly Recommended!!
Director – Ram Madhvani
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 122 minutes