Neerja Bhanot died two days before she turned 23, on September 5, 1986. Her parents received her body in a coffin on her birthday.
Director Ram Madhvani, tells us a moving, poignant story of Neerja, the daughter and Neerja, the tragic hero, in his film starring Sonam Kapoor.
The silver lining on the grey Karachi cloud of the doomed September day, is that Sonam Kapoor, the sincere actress has been born. Especially when she eats a chocolate cookie. More on that, later.
Thanks to Madhvani’s vision kept simple, and a tightly written script by Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyukta Chawla Shaikh, the biopic has given the best possible rebirth to Neerja Bhanot. Both in our memories and in our hearts.
The facts are horrifying enough. Four armed terrorists hijacked Pan American Flight 73 at Karachi airport. Chief purser, Neerja, daughter of a Mumbai journalist, Harish Bhanot, saved 360 people while she bravely took bullets herself.
Before that, for a harrowing 16 hours, she served coffee and sandwiches to the frightened passengers, comforted them, shielded three little children with her body on her way to the exit. When the captain and his two-crew people escaped the plane, after she quickly alerted them of the hijack, Neerja in her first job as a head purser, is believed to have announced, “ The captain has left. I am the captain.”
When the ordeal was finally over, and the relieved passengers clutched on to their loved ones at Mumbai airport, Neerja came back to her heartbroken but proud parents and two brothers, in a wooden coffin.
As evident, there is more than sufficient material for any inspiring and heroic biopic. But the true achievement of this film is in introducing us to both Neerja, the brave professional who died serving not just coffee but serving the nation and the world; as well as the doting daughter, her parents adored darling who they called affectionately: Laado.
Madhvani ties the film poignantly with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aanand in its central philosophy spelt out by the memorable line, “ Babumoshai, zindagi badi honi chahiye…….lambi nahin (Life should be big, not long)” Showcasing Neerja as a die-hard Rajesh Khanna fan, he turns what could have been jarring moments, into the most deeply heart wrenching ones.
To understand this, watch how Sonam sings “mere sapno ki raani, kab aayegi tum…” to save lives. Or when Shabana Azmi, in her best performance so far (yes, that may be unimaginable, considering all her past glories), as the mother, Rama, repeats a certain Rajesh Khanna line, now mentioned in jokes. Both are moments when tears roll down, hearts break and heads and spirits are held high.
The latter, though, takes away from the film’s core subject of it being all about Neerja and instead becomes a film school on great acting by Shabana Azmi, complete with subtle Punjabi accent and tone. Madhvani, here, resorts to the classic syndrome of Bollywood Maa. The need and the greed for an emotional speech, is one big flaw that mars the film with unnecesarry melodrama in the epilogue.
Yet, there are moments and performances that stay with you. One of them is Yogendra Tiku as Harish Bhanot on the phone, at his office desk, when he informs his wife of the plane hijack, stuttering and helpless.
There can be countless scenes of panic, hysteria and violence that can build drama, given the nature of the real life hijack story.
But the one moment that beats all, is a long and lonely one when Sonam eats a cream biscuit. It’s the moment with least drama and no glycerine or tears. It’s a very fine moment in cinema, depicting both romance and deep strength.
Captured in the most heart tugging series of close ups , one lives through contrasting emotions of fear, desire, unfulfilled dreams, young romance, resignation, contentment and brave resolve in the most meditative full take of Sonam eating up both the biscuit and the most memorable, meaty role.
That silent moment of Neerja’s last supper is Sonam Kapoor’s finest salute to Neerja, the captain and the darling laado.