Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Jim Sarbh
Director: Ram Madhvani
What is it like to spend 16 hours trapped in a hijacked plane? What is the anguish of having your daughter come home in a coffin? What is the taste of terror?
In Neerja, director Ram Madhvani recreates the last day in the life of a 23-year-old Pan Am flight purser, who was killed in 1986. The New York bound flight was taken over by Palestinian terrorists when it halted at Karachi. Following protocol, the pilots abandoned the cockpit. Neerja Bhanot, who was on her first flight, as head purser, took charge. She hid American passports and eventually opened the emergency exits. Neerja saved 359 lives. She was shot dead as she huddled children to safety. She was posthumously given awards for her courage by India, Pakistan and America.
Ram and writers Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyuktha Chawla dramatise and embellish this story. In their telling, Neerja is a Rajesh Khanna fan. Early in the film, she delivers his iconic dialogue from Anand — 'Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin'. And then over the next two hours, she exemplifies exactly that. Ram begins by intercutting between Karachi and Bombay. Terrorists prepare bombs while children play with balloons at a building party where Neerja works the mike as the unofficial MC. We see her ordinary home, her gentle middle-class parents, her dog who sleeps on the bed with her. Each scene adds to your dread because you know that eventually these two worlds will tragically collide.
Using hand-held cameras and long takes, Ram immerses you into the action. Hijack dramas usually follow a fixed template — you always get a pregnant lady, a granny, kids. We have them here too but the characters don't come with backstories. We know nothing about anyone else on this plane apart from Neerja. And yet, she is never positioned as an obvious heroic figure. We see her struggle with her fear. Flashbacks of her abusive, failed marriage are woven in but with minimal melodrama. Neerja is constructed as an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances who somehow finds courage to oppose men with guns. She is believable and authentic. So when she finally falls, we mourn her loss as much as her family does. Honestly, I don't remember the last time I cried so much in a film which is a testament to the artistry of the team both behind and in front of the camera.
The truth is that I was afraid of Sonam Kapoor's performance. Sonam's most effective work has been in comedies. She's known for her impeccable taste in clothes rather than her acting chops. Physically, Sonam has an eerie resemblance to Neerja but I wondered if she could be convincing enough emotionally to carry a project like this. Actually, she's just right. Sonam deep dives into Neerja — she is vivacious and vulnerable, brave but also broken inside. This is easily Sonam's best performance.
The film is also centered by the masterful Shabana Azmi who plays Neerja's mother Rama Bhanot. Like most Indian mothers, Rama is overprotective and fussy but she is also warm and wise and ultimately heartbreaking. When she speaks about losing Neerja, it truly wrenches your insides.
Obviously then, Neerja doesn't fit the simplistic notion of entertainment. It isn't happy or funny. The second half is also less smooth with an unnecessary song interlude. But Neerja is a truly inspiring story that will grip you from the first frame till the last. Take a few hankies with you. This one is a genuine weeper.