Editor’s Notes: Neerja is currnetly in limited theatrical release.
Neerja is a biopic directed by Ram Madhvani, based on Head Purser Neerja Bhanot, who was instrumental in foiling a hijack attempt on Pan Am Flight 73 on September 1986 in Karachi. Starring Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tiku in titular roles, this depiction of the incident in the film, though ridden with dramatic overlays, does manage to strike a chord.
. . . though ridden with dramatic overlays, does manage to strike a chord.
Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) is a 22 year old, fun loving, Bollywood obsessed, only daughter of Rama Bhanot (Shabana Azmi) and Harish Bhanot (Yogendra Tiku) living in Mumbai. After having returned home from the Gulf after enduring a failed arranged marriage due to dowry concerns and human rights abuse, Neerja concentrates on her aviation career as a flight attendant while hustling as a model. On 5th September 1986, Neerja boards Pan Am flight 73 in Mumbai bound for Frankfurt as a head purser only to find a little while later that it has been hijacked in Karachi in a stopover. Using her quick thinking she aids in the escape of the pilots, but is also held hostage along with 360 passengers on board. The terrorists begin negotiations with the Pakistani government but need pilots to go airborne to reach Cyprus and exchange the passengers for their jailed associates. Will she manage to escape along with the others or will the terrorists get what they want? Watch to know.
Or maybe google Neerja Bhanot to know. The fact that this movie got a great collection – 22 crores – in the first three days itself in spite of the outcome known/assessable to mostly everybody and with Kapoor on the lead whose acting critics have always been sceptical about – might say a lot about the narration prowess of the film and its ability to touch you. Might also say a lot about the fact there were no other major openings in the box office. Oops.
Regarding the narration, the film draws upon Neerja’s personal life, and how her marriage was influential in shaping her convictions that finally proved pivotal in the climax of her short life.
Regarding the narration, the film draws upon Neerja’s personal life, and how her marriage was influential in shaping her convictions that finally proved pivotal in the climax of her short life. Relying heavily on relationships, parental ties and expectations are the major themes here. Present timelines are interceded with shots of the terrorists preparing for the hijack, her marriage and her beating herself up over running away from it. Being a young woman in a 1980s India, separated from her abusive husband and getting herself back on her feet, only to again test her grit in a hijacked flight, this display of human spirit and its moral ramification is reason why the film manages to work somehow despite the heavy dramatization of the violence, of Kapoor’s bubbly disposition pre-hijack and of Azmi’s denial of her daughter’s situation post-hijack.
The cinematography caters to the hijack theme, haphazard shots with camera shakes, layering of objects on the screen for the guerrilla effect, infinite amount of close-ups. Because of the high level of intensity maintained throughout the film in the form of the camera work, sound effects and acting, the climax – especially for our protagonist - was hardly impactful. By then you tend to become immune to the gunshots and the heroism. Neerja’s final appearances on screen could have been more nuanced and hard-hitting, but it gets drowned in the chaos leaving the family’s acting towards the conclusion and the music to retain the audience’s sympathies.
Ram Madhvani’s decision to make the aircraft look as authentic as possible resulted in the recreation of an entire plane complete with cockpits, washrooms and kitchen area in 48 days. Kudos to the art direction team. Though the sets and props do their bit in looking convincing, the nostalgic grace and placid visuals of that period were certainly missed in the overall treatment of the film.
As the trend continues in 2016, Bollywood is opening itself to more and more woman centric roles. Sonam Kapoor naturally blends into her character. Entities that may have been considered faults in her acting, like her unmistakable accent, dialogue delivery, lack of variety in expressions gel with the Miami trained flight attendant/aspiring model. Neerja’s sassiness combined with the sensitivity and vulnerability of a 22 year old caught up in a horrifying situation is emulated perfectly through Kapoor, like this role is made for her, with some critics even calling this a career defining performance. Jim Sarbh plays the perfect terrorist everybody wants to hate, with his non-discriminatory handling of hostages and his gun throttling, ball busting manic rage. Meanwhile if Kapoor doesn’t exactly translate into the heroine you want to love then that gap is filled with Azmi, who plays the perfect Indian mother. In the age of feminist ideals and widespread terrorism, though the incident was unfortunate, the timing of this film is perfect.
Sonam Kapoor’s growth as an actor is what keeps this film going. The problem is, nothing much else is.