In a week when defenders of violence and divisiveness are laying claim to a monopoly on patriotism, comes an unintentionally well-timed chronicle of service to country and humanity.
Neerja Bhanot did not fly a 207-feet-high Tiranga over her home or beat up journalists at Patiala House while shouting “Vande mataram”, yet in this film’s closing moments, as her family announces an award in her name and her photograph smiles at us from a podium next to an image of the Indian tricolor, we are gently reminded that there is no greater way to make India proud than to do your duty quietly, determinedly and in spite of your fears, as she did.
This is a story worth telling.
Neerja is a biopic of the airline purser who lost her life saving passengers on the US-bound Pan Am Flight 73 hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in Karachi in September 1986.
If you were around in that decade, you would remember her — a young woman who is now part of contemporary India’s folklore of courage. Neerja is said to have alerted the cockpit as soon as gun-wielding men boarded at Karachi airport, thus ensuring that the pilot and co-pilot deplaned immediately and nixed the intruders’ original plan to get the aircraft flown to another country.
As a result of her continued presence of mind under highly stressful circumstances, she subsequently managed to save most of the people in her charge and died shielding children from bullets. Her 23rd birthday was just two days away. Neerja was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest civilian honour for peacetime bravery, Pakistan’s Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat and several awards in the United States, headquarters of the now-defunct Pan Am.
Her sacrifice could move an iceberg to tears. We already know that. The question here is how it is served by this telling.
Neerja is the kind of project that a conventional Bollywood (or for that matter Hollywood) filmmaker would have been tempted to over-dramatise with voluble dialogues and music, while giving short shrift to facts in a bid to needlessly lionise the central character. The Ben Affleck-starrer Argo diminished many heroes to over-state the US’ role in a real-life escape of potential American hostages from Iran.
The recent Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift went several steps further on this front, completely twisting the truth about a real-life evacuation of Indians from Kuwait, no doubt to create a fictional character deemed worthy of Akshay Kumar’s star stature.
Director Ram Madhvani and writer Saiwyn Quadras will have none of that. Ram is an advertising professional who debuted in Bollywood with the decidedly offbeat feature Let’s Talk in 2002. Saiwyn earlier wrote Mary Kom. Together for Neerja, they have stayed faithful to most available accounts of the happenings on that flight. Although an opening disclaimer insists that the film is based on true events but is not a biography, even for those of us who may not have read reams of news reports, it is hard to find a moment in Neerja that is evidently exaggerated for cinematic effect (barring one brief background song in the middle of the hijack, that could have been done away with).
Sonam Kapoor stars as the ill-fated airline professional-cum-model who gave her life that others might live. The film begins by inter-cutting between the terrorists’ preparations for their mission in Karachi while Neerja livens up a party in a Mumbai housing society. Without much ado, it is quickly established in those early scenes that she is a live wire, that her family – Dad (Yogendra Tiku), Mum (Shabana Azmi) and two brothers – dotes on her, that she is hard-working and sincere, and that she is a mega Rajesh Khanna fan given to finding an appropriate quote from Kakaji’s films for any given situation.
Though her cheery demeanour gives nothing away, she is still recovering from a personal trauma when we first meet her. Her friends and boyfriend (Shekhar Ravjiani) are encouraging her to give marriage a second shot, but she is hesitant. She is not Superwoman. She is Everywoman.
Perhaps that is the big takeaway from this film: that valour is often about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. From the moment the terrorists board that flight, we see Neerja’s tears and fears; we also see her squaring her shoulders, staying calm and not allowing those fears to conquer her.
The USP of Neerja is its realism and low-key tone. Everything unfolding on screen feels like something that must surely have happened off screen. It is the seeming lack of effort to build up melodrama that makes this such an intense, suspenseful and emotionally consuming viewing experience.
Each element, from the narrative structure to the recreation of a 1980s aeroplane, the costumes, styling and Vishal Khurana’s excellent background score are directed towards giving the film its authentic feel. The director makes a wise choice to stay indoors most of the time even when we are not on the plane; the outdoors are primarily visited in the night-time in the film.
This justifies cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani’s low-lit frames which are key to building up the sense of claustrophobia and foreboding that envelopes us as Neerja progresses. Editor Monisha R. Baldawa contributes to the film’s sense of urgency, not allowing the pace to flag even during those flashbacks to Neerja’s home in Mumbai and her unhappy marital experience in Doha.
Sonam gives us a highly pared-down version of her usual glamorous self for this role and in the bargain delivers one of her best performances till date. This is not an easy part but she internalises Neerja’s character well. Shabana as her mother reduced me to a blubbering, sobbing mess, especially in the climactic scene.
These women have the benefit of playing Neerja’s primary characters. The writer’s and casting director’s skill lies in the fact that in addition to them, at least a dozen supporting players in the film remain memorable even if many go nameless: like the brother who has absolute clarity that his sister should not return to an abusive husband, or that well-intentioned Pakistani airport official handling negotiations on the ground in Karachi, or the co-pilot who is tempted to break hijack protocol and stay on in the plane.
What elevates Neerja to a level of brilliance though is its treatment of the hijackers and their group dynamic. It is easy to caricature villains. Making them relatable and believable in spite of their evil intentions is an effort few film writers make. Saiwyn does. Hats off to him for that.
The figures flashed on screen in the end remind us that there were 379 people (passengers and crew) on board Pan Am Flight 73 when it was hijacked, and that 359 survived. News reports from back then tell us that Neerja was the prime mover in saving those lives. If she had been from any other country, chances are this film would have been made decades back. Indian cinema tends to steer clear of recent events, possibly because we do not invest enough money in writers to ensure that their research passes muster with the survivors of the tales they’re recounting.
It is a good thing this team chose to buck the trend, because Neerja Bhanot’s is a story worth telling and this film tells it really well. It is as if Ram Madhvani was there on that flight with Saiwyn, Sonam and the rest of them that day in 1986. It is as if Neerja’s soul resides in the film and whispers at us from the screen in those final moments. It is as if we too were there. For a filmmaker to stir up such a high degree of emotion while making no obvious attempt to manipulate us is an amazing achievement.
Neerja is outstanding.