Director: Ram Madhvani
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Shekhar Ravjiiani
The real life story
On September 5, 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 took off from Mumbai in the early morning to go to New York, via Karachi and Frankfurt. As it landed on Karachi airport for stopover, four terrorists belonging to Palestinian Abu Nidal group barged in to hijack the plane. For next many hours, the 379 people aboard were at the mercy of these armed terrorists, whose plan was to take the plane to Cyprus and demand the release of their jailed colleagues. When Pak authorities finally managed to mount a rescue mission, they could capture all the hijackers alive but by that time, 20 innocent lives had been lost!
Neerja is a biopic of Neerja Bhanot, the brave flight attendant of Pan Am 73, who played a pivotal role in handling the hijack drama. Neerja was flying on her first flight as the Chief Purser and was to celebrate her 23rd birthday just 2 days later. The young and beautiful lady had a successful modeling career as well but she had continued to pursue her airline job because she loved to do it.
As soon as the terrorists entered the plane, she alerted the cockpit crew, who then managed to escape. Without any pilot to fly the plane, the hijackers were then left stranded to negotiate with the Pakistani authorities to provide them the flying crew. As the negotiations stalled and the hours passed on, the hijackers started losing patience. They started killing and terrorizing passengers. Neerja played the cool head during the whole crisis, guiding the crew and reassuring the passengers, all the while second-guessing and thwarting many of the hijackers’ moves. Alas, even though she saved so many lives, she lost her own in the end while trying to save a few schoolkids from getting shot!
Neerja’s act of valor and compassion got international recognition. Not only did she become the youngest (posthumous) recipient of India’s highest bravery award Ashok Chakra; she also got similar honours from countries such as Pakistan and US.
Director Ram Madhvani tells Neerja’s tragic yet inspiring life-story with control and conviction. The film does not waste much time in establishing characters and jumps headlong into the hijack drama within first twenty minutes. The blind fury of the terrorists, the collective fear of the passengers, the helplessness of the crew members, the gradually escalating tension …..the high-voltage terror act within the confines of a huge plane is captured in chilling detail.
The film doesn’t turn Neerja into some kind of a super-hero and instead shows her own anxieties and vulnerabilities about coping with the unfolding ordeal, through some telling flashbacks about her scarred marital past. To see that her heroism emerged in such a challenging situation despite her nagging doubts and despair is what makes it so believable and relatable. The director also gets kudos for sensitively portraying her parents’ role in shaping her personality.
It is a plot-driven film and not performance driven. But still many performances and characters leave their mark. Sonam Kapoor, despite some early hiccups, makes a convincing Neerja, a twenty-something full of life city girl who becomes an unlikely hero by going way beyond her call of duty. Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tiku play Neerja’s parents with touching grace and dignity. Shekhar Ravjiani (of Vishal-Shekhar fame) is pleasant in his brief role as Neerja’s boy-friend. The actors playing the terrorists too fit their parts perfectly.
As an edge of the seat plane hijacking drama, Neerja is at par with many Hollywood thrillers of similar genre. But in pure Indian context, it is priceless as an inspiring biopic bringing a forgotten icon back in public eye. The story of Neerja Bhanot’s exceptional bravery and humanity in face of adversity needed to be preserved for posterity and Neerja has done that quite admirably!