The success of Ram Madhvani's hijack drama Neerja, which depicted the final hours of slain Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot in 1986, has led to a hilariously petty political squabble between three parties in Mumbai.
Leaders from the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), both headquartered in the city, have been tripping over each other in their rush to pay tribute Bhanot, who was portrayed by Sonam Kapoor in the recently released film. On Monday, Mumbai Mirror reported that Manish Chavan, an MNS corporator, had proposed the idea of renaming a chowk (junction) in the city's Mahim (West) area after the Ashok Chakra winner. This junction is opposite Bombay Scottish School, where Bhanot studied.
Also Read: 'Neerja' Review: A Fitting Tribute
However, it transpires that the Shiv Sena is none too happy about MNS taking credit for this proposal, with the party claiming that the idea actually came from Aaditya Thackeray, who heads their youth wing, the Yuva Sena. Thackeray, who also studied at Bombay Scottish, was reportedly approached by Kapoor and the film's producer Atul Kasbekar to get this done. "Aadityaji wanted to honour Neerja for her heroics. So local Shiv Sena legislator Sada Sarvankar moved the proposal before the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Mumbai's governing civic body]. However since the BMC said it would be better if a corporator makes the request, we let Manish Chavan do it," a Sena member told Mumbai Mirror in a report published Thursday.
A file photo of Yuva Sena president Aaditya Thackeray
An effort to etch the story of Neerja's courage as inspiration for students, as you have through the movie for all https://t.co/8jaNbjBSuL— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) March 26, 2016
Plans for a joint Sena-MNS inauguration of the junction were foiled by Chavan, who let the MNS take credit for the entire idea. However, not to be outdone, the Sena has come up with another plan to reclaim some of that limelight. "We got all the paper-work done. In fact, when the issue came up for approval before the group leaders, it was the Sena that supported it. However, the MNS went ahead with the inauguration so we will now get the plaque installed with her story," an unnamed spokesperson told MM. Thackeray tweeted:
The plac can't just have the name of Neerja, it must carry her story, is what @atulkasbekar and I thought and thus, next week it shall be up— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) March 25, 2016
Incidentally, a junction named Neerja Bhanot Chowk already exists in the city, in its Ghatkopar (East) area. It was inaugurated in the early '90s by none other than Amitabh Bachchan. However, no plaque or signboard exists today, even though locals still refer to the junction as 'Neerja Chowk' — it was removed in 2009 after that stretch was concretised and no one ever thought of putting it back.
Now, however, with the Shiv Sena and MNS locking horns over this issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party has decided it cannot be left behind. Falguni Dave, the BJP corporator from Ghatkopar (East), has proposed to reinstate the plaque at the original Neerja Bhanot Chowk independently, since existing municipal laws set no limit on the number of roads or junctions that can be named after a particular person — as long as they're in different areas. She told MM: "We have written to the BMC to reinstall the plaque. Senior party leaders will be inviting Bachchan this time around as well."
Bhanot, an occasional model and a purser for the now-defunct Pan Am Airways, was shot dead in September 1986 just two days before her 23rd birthday, after her flight was hijacked by terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal Organisation during a stopover in Karachi. Her actions helped save the lives of 359 passengers on board. She was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra, India's highest peacetime award for gallantry, and continues to be its youngest and only female recipient. Madhvani's Hindi feature film on her final hours, Neerja, released on February 19 to widespread critical acclaim.
A stone plaque — with Bhanot's name and details of her bravery — was inaugurated at her alma mater St Xavier's College, Mumbai, by Kapoor in early February. Aside from that, the first and only other memorial dedicated to this brave young woman exists in a small village called Ghal Kalan, Tehsil Moga, Punjab, as per this Indiatimes.com post. Created by sculptor Manjit Singh Gill in 2013, it comprises a sculpture of Bhanot, one of the Pan Am aircraft, and a plaque that tells the story of her courage.
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