Neerja is the second Hindi film in as many months to be directed by an award-winning ad filmmaker returning to feature-length cinema after several years with a star-led drama. The first, Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift (read our review here), starring Akshay Kumar, has already become the first big hit of 2016.
One hopes that a similar-if-not-better fate awaits Neerja, directed by Ram Madhvani, whose biggest success till now has been this Cannes-winning commercial for HappyDent chewing gum. His first, barely-seen feature, Let’s Talk (2002), a stark exploration of a marriage under breakdown, was notable for introducing the talents of Boman Irani, then an occasional theatre actor, to movie audiences.
With this film, Madhvani has gone one over by introducing audiences to Sonam Kapoor, the actress. In this pulse-pounding, tense thriller about the 1986 hijack of Pan Am Flight 73 by Palestinian terrorists, the much-maligned Kapoor plays Neerja Bhanot, the brave head purser who helped save the lives of 359 people on board after the pilots flee. That this is undoubtedly a career-best performance for her is without question; but what’s truly astonishing is the realisation that she may indeed have been the best choice for the role. Whether she succeeds in portraying the real Neerja the way she was is moot, but what Kapoor delivers here is a convincing portrayal of quiet courage, using motifs from her character’s life to build a heart-rending and memorable performance. Who'da thunk, eh?
Neerja is actually two movies rolled into one: a hijack drama and a four-hanky tearjerker about a young woman fighting norms to be independent and self-sufficient. Before she boards the ill-fated Bombay-New York flight, we see Bhanot spending a precious few hours with her doting family. Her mother Rama (a superb Shabana Azmi) constantly fusses over her, asking her to give up her job since her career in modeling seems to be taking off. Her father Harish (a wonderfully understated Yogendra Tiku), a journalist for the Hindustan Times, constantly encourages her to be his “brave bachcha”.
Flashbacks from the Bombay-New York flight, taken over by armed terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal Organisation during a layover in Karachi, show us glimpses of Bhanot’s ugly marriage to a man in Doha, Qatar, named Naresh (Kavi Shastri), who chides her for having brought along no dowry and not knowing how to cook or do housework. A beautifully edited sequence juxtaposes those memories against the horror of being trapped in a life-or-death situation as she takes a moment to compose herself in the lavatory.
The subject, the performances, and Madhvani’s restrained direction are strong enough to ensure that few will leave theatres dry-eyed. Eat your heart out, Karan Johar — this is how it’s done.
Speaking of lavatories, one of the film’s biggest achievements is Aparna Sud’s stunning production design. A replica of the Pan Am aircraft, created over 48 days in a northern suburb of Mumbai, stands in for the actual plane that was grounded at Karachi airport. The result is nothing short of remarkable. At no point does one feel they aren’t actually in a plane in the 1980s. The settings, ranging from the Bhanots’ middle-class home to a newspaper office with typewriters, feel completely real.
This naturalism extends to other departments too. Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani shoots the entire film on a Steadicam — eschewing the over-lit-ness that plagues many commercial Indian films — and effectively transports the viewer right into the middle of the action. Monisha R Baldawa’s editing is not just precise and naturally rhythmic but, as discussed before, also helps the film become much more than a thriller. Vishal Khurrana’s background score is appropriate and understated, yet keeps your pulse pounding. In certain sequences, a sound akin to a plane taking off is panned wildly from left to right to create a sense of disorientation — aside from teasing the audience and reminding them that they aren’t likely to hear that sound again, since the Pan Am pilots are shown to have fled the cockpit.
The writing, by Saiwyn Qadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla, takes pains to ensure that Neerja isn’t just a one-sided, one-woman show. To some extent, it succeeds in doing so. Early scenes show the terrorists preparing for their operation in tandem with Bhanot getting ready to leave for the airport. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t attempt to give these characters any real depth aside from treating them as variations of an archetype — The Leader, The Hot-Headed One, The Newbie, and so on. Still, as the volatile Khalil, the most dangerous of the lot, theatre actor Jim Sarbh is terrifyingly effective. Props to casting director Kanika Berry for finding good actors to portray even the smaller roles, such as the doting old lady attempting to find a good match for her America-born grandson.
Neerja tends to be reminiscent of similarly-well-executed Hollywood thrillers such as United 93 (2006) and Executive Decision (1996) in parts, which may be the reason token sentimentalism and songs inserted into the narrative come across as forced attempts to ‘Indianise’ the film. While this certainly doesn’t detract from the viewing experience as much as the same did in Airlift, this is one film that really didn’t need all of that. The subject, the performances, and Madhvani’s restrained direction are strong enough to ensure that few will leave theatres dry-eyed. Eat your heart out, Karan Johar — this is how it’s done.
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