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Movies are meant to inspire. Many bring to the screen true stories of people who have made a difference to the world at large or maybe just for one, showcasing the contribution, devotion, ambition, and sometimes even sacrifice these people have committed to their cause. With Neerja, we meet a woman of exceptional courage, and while the film stumbles a bit with tone, succeeds in bringing justice to Neerja herself, centered on a profoundly affecting performance.
Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) is a 22-year-old air-hostess for Pan Am, the head purser on Flight 73 traveling from Bombay (now Mumbai) to New York via Karachi. She comes from a large and happy home, though has worked hard and overcome a few significant obstacles in becoming the respected and admired leader of the plane’s current crew. She’s even pictured on the inflight magazine.
When the plane lands in Karachi, it is rushed by four armed Libyan-backed Palestinian terrorists of the Abu Nidal Organization. In the chaos, Neerja manages to signal the cockpit, where the captain and co-pilots follow procedure and escape via a roof hatch, leaving the plane grounded. The terrorists had intended to force the plane to Cyprus to use as a bargaining tool to free brothers in prison. Now stuck on the tarmac, they make demands for a new crew, threatening to kill passengers to show their intent. Meanwhile, during the 16-hour ordeal, Neerja desperately works to pacify the terrorists, which she hopes will stop a massacre.
Directed by Ram Madhvani, Neerja works best as portrait of courage, rightfully keeping most of its attention on the efforts of Neerja as she stands as a liaison of sorts in the crisis. We are presented with a woman who is not a hero in the traditional sense, but one of circumstances, born from an unimaginable dilemma thrust upon her. Madhvani uses brief flashbacks during the incident that mirror impactful events in her life before she came to work for the airline, and these work well in helping to establish Neerja and her character. Her presence on the plane fast becomes the anchor for balance as the frustrated terrorists grow increasingly unstable and the fearful passengers realize it’s only a matter of time before they are all executed.
It is the scenes on the plane that compel the most, with Madhvani wisely filming these lengthy segments with great authenticity, rightfully avoiding clichés and using manipulation to create false tension. There exists a real sense of terror on board, with the passengers and their captors all extremely convincing. When we step away from the plane, things are not as genuine, especially in moments that feature Neerja’s mother (Shabana Azmi), who falls hopelessly into the tropes, even having a premonition that something bad has happened. Madhvani can’t resist cutting to her throughout as she reacts to news, though gives her redemption in the film’s touching close.
That said, Neerja is Kapoor’s film, in a performance that could have been weakened by over-indulgence into sentimentality but is instead gripping for its honesty. Kapoor finds a way to showcase the courage of the real life Neerja without attempting to romanticize or generate false heroics. Neerja’s impressive but tragic story, while slightly altered for the sake of the film, is nonetheless one to be visited upon and made better known. This serves well in igniting that interest.
The film maybe presses on a bit longer than it should, and has its narrative weaknesses, but solid direction, a terrific score by Vishal Khurana, and its outstanding performances make this one you won’t soon forget. This is an uncommon biography that views its subject not only through an intentionally flattering camera, but more so through the eyes of those she saved, presenting her actions altruistic for the sake of her duty rather than aggrandizing her for spectacle.
Director: Ram Madhvani
Writers: Saiwyn Quadras, Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla
Stars: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tikku
Genre: Biography, Thriller
Language: Hindi, English