Neerja, directed by Ram Madhvani and starring Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Shekhar Ravjiani in the pivotal roles, presents a fictionalized account of the final few days of the heroic Pan Am airhostess Neerja Bhanot's life. Bhanot was the head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 --flying from Bombay (now Mumbai) to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt -- which was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists of the Abu Nidal Organization on 5 September 1986 at Karachi Airport in Pakistan. The terrorists had intended to use the hijacked plane to pick up their associates imprisoned in Cyprus but their plan was thwarted thanks to the quick thinking of Neerja who alerted the pilots, paving the way for their timely escape.
Neerja has its share of flaws and weaknesses, but, to its credit, it does complete justice to the story of real-life heroine Neerja Bhanot.
Stranded at Karachi Airport, the hijackers desperately began to kill the passengers one by one in a bid to force the Pakistani officials to provide them with fresh crew to complete their mission. During the 16-hour ordeal, Neerja time and again demonstrated her courage and intelligence: she took up the nigh impossible task of pacifying the hijackers while simultaneously ensuring that the passengers didn't lose hope. In the end, Neerja succeeded in saving the lives of majority of the passengers but she herself was killed while trying to shield three children from a fusillade of bullets fired by the exasperated hijackers (although accounts by eyewitnesses differ). Neerja was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra, becoming the youngest recipient of India's highest peacetime military award for bravery.
Neerja Bhanot's story is one of courage in the face of grave danger. It is a story that needed to be told and should have been told much earlier. But, as they say, it is better late than never. Neerja has come at a time when Bollywood is showing an inclination towards female-centric subjects. Films like NH10, Mary Kom, and Mardaani have been the harbingers of this new progressive trend. Hopefully, Neerja will encourage more directors to make films focusing on strong female characters. Also, it should give a fillip to the biopic genre as far as Hindi cinema is concerned. Biopics are a tried and tested formula in the West and it is high time Bollywood too started treating one of the most bankable genres of all with more gravity.
Overall, Neerja serves as a solid biopic that succeeds in giving a worthy account of heroism of one of India's bravest daughters. The movie reminds us that courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it. Neerja inspires us to live our lives selflessly. That we must always be willing to give without expecting anything in return. The movie depicts Neerja to be a diehard fan of superstar Rajesh Khanna; she often quotes (and lives by) the famous line spoken by Khanna's character in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic Anand: "Life should be big... not long".
The movie reminds us that courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it.
However, while Neerja succeeds as a biopic, it fails to pack a punch as a thriller.
While the movie handles the tender moments quite well, it somewhere falters in its attempt to capture the tension associated with the hijacking incident: the scenes either look hyper or seem to fall flat. Sonam Kapoor delivers a memorable performance playing a challenging part that required courage and tenderness in equal parts. While the acting is solid all around, the most noteworthy performance comes from the veteran Shabana Azmi who is brilliant in the role of Neerja's mother. Neerja has its share of flaws and weaknesses, but, to its credit, it does complete justice to the story of real-life heroine Neerja Bhanot.
A version of this review was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges.
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