Saiwyn Quadras

Ram Madhavani

Sanyunktha Chawla Shaikh

Movie Review
Neerja:Flies Far to Deliver

Courage in the face of fear

As almost everybody now knows, the film is based on the heroic deed performed by Neerja Bhanot, head purser on flight PanAm 73 in 1986. The flight on the route Mumbai- New York via Karachi and Frankfurt was carrying 379 people on board including the crew. Four heavily armed terrorists from the Libyan Abu Nidal Organisation boarded the aircraft at Karachi airport in the guise of airport security.

As head purser, Neerja quickly informed the pilots of the hijack code and they evacuated the plane from the overhead emergency cockpit exit, thus ensuring the plane could not be forcibly flown. After a long period of waiting and negotiations with the Karachi airport authorities, the jittery terrorists opened fire inside the aircraft. During the ensuing melee, Neerja activated the emergency exits and managed to get most of the passengers and crew out, however, she was shot and succumbed to her injuries.

‘Neerja’ opens with a lively scene where the residents of a building are enjoying an evening get-together. Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) is jollying everybody along and is the life and soul of the party, as her proud parents Rama (Shabana Azmi) and Harish (Yogendra Tiku) watch on indulgently. Juxtaposed chillingly amid the sounds of merriment are sinister going-ons far away in Karachi, where the terrorists are preparing themselves. After sharing some tender moments with her parents, Neerja has to leave later that same night to board the ill-fated flight. Thereafter, the rest of the movie plays inside the plane, except for some flashback scenes of Neerja’s disastrous and abusive arranged marriage.

The movie stays fairly true to facts: the names of most people, their place of work... ‘Real’ touches of a typical middle-class household are seen in nuances such as the bindis stuck on the wall near the mirror, or the somewhat cluttered house. Authenticity continues with the shot of the terrorists praying before they leave the house. Nice light moments as the passengers are boarding, with an old lady asking one of the pretty air hostesses: aapki shaadi hui hai kya? The Arabic accents, the stress levels that the terrorists are going through, have all been handled capably. It is not clear whether the real Neerja was also a Rajesh Khanna fan however, one must allow for some cinematic license and, to its credit, the screenplay has woven in these little light asides quite well, especially the tearjerker message at the end from Neerja to her mother, delivered by one of the little boys who was an unaccompanied minor on the flight: “Pushpa, I hate tears,” one of the immortal lines from ‘Amar Prem.’

Possibly the most poignant scene in the film would be where a terrorist forces Neerja to sing a song at gunpoint, and she begins to jerkily sing ‘Mere sapnon ki rani’; the joie de vivre of this much-loved song against this horrifying backdrop with trigger-happy men is sobering and Sonam Kapoor has done full justice to the moment. The actress is at her most vulnerable yet as she tonelessly describes her marital abuse to her stunned family (again, all taken from real life incidents.) ‘Neerja’ is, without a doubt, Kapoor’s finest performance to date.

Shabana Azmi has proven herself several times over and needs no introduction to her acting prowess. Yogendra Tiku has matched her frame for frame and they both come across as very believable, simple, middle-class parents. Shekhar Ravjiani (one half of the music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar) makes his acting debut as Neerja’s male friend Jaideep and he would be better advised to stick to trying good music instead. He comes across as too smiley and very conscious of the camera. Apart from this, casting director Kanika Berry is to be congratulated for putting this assembly of artistes together.

One of the biggest challenges a story like this would have faced is the logistics of re-creating the plane’s interiors as it would have been back in the ‘80’s. Apparently this feat took 48-days. The other challenge, of course, would be to maintain the pace of the movie that takes place largely in this static backdrop and avoid the tedium; this has been ably managed by some dexterous insertions of personal family scenes.

One doesn’t really know how much leeway has been taken with the reel incident vis-a-vis the real; nonetheless, the script is quite tightly woven and zips along till the end, where it falls prey to the Indian lust for dramatics. Irrespective of Shabana Azmi’s powerful delivery or whether the real life Mrs Rama Bhanot actually made such a speech or not in a memoriam service for her daughter, this is perhaps the only moment where one felt the deviation of a hitherto focussed screenplay.

Nonetheless, this does not detract from Ram Madhvani’s deft handling of the directorial baton. Madhvani is an ad film maker whose directorial debut was ‘Let’s Talk’, a film that was not commercially successful but one that experimented with a different genre and was, perhaps, too mature for its times. His team does not let him down either; Saiwyn Quadras (earlier, ‘Mary Kom’) has done a splendid job with the screenplay, barring the theatrical asides of which thankfully, there are few; Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh keeps the dialogues crisp; Vishal Khurana (music) and Prasoon Joshi (lyrics) keep it simple, indeed, the background score is very apt; Mitesh Mirchandani has the cinematography down pat and, for the first time in a long time, an editor delivers the tricks of the trade to satisfaction (Monisha R Baldawa.)

‘Neerja’ goes far in delivering a message that hits home: in these troubled and sometimes vicious times that have beset our country, there are still ordinary, unsung Indians out there who display exemplary courage and compassion to their fellow beings, whether deserving or not.




   Punam Mohandas

Punam Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.

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