The incredible story of Pan Am air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who died while helping passengers escape from Palestinian terrorists on the hijacked flight 73, is based in 1986, but the tragedy has greater resonance at a time when the slaying of innocents in the name of ideology has become an almost daily occurrence.
Ram Madhvani’s movie, based on a screenplay by Mary Kom writer Saiwyn Quadras, focuses on the hours leading up to the attack and its immediate aftermath. The opening sequence inter-cuts between Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) and her loving family in Mumbai on the night before she leaves for her assigned flight and members of the Abu Nidal Organisation preparing for the attack in Karachi. Neerja has overcome a violent marriage and returned to the family fold, and she has a job she loves, a boyfriend (Shekhar Ravjiani), and several modelling assignments. When she gets on to the ill-fated flight, she is the very picture of victory against adversity.
Neerja transforms into a heroine for the ages soon after the terrorists take over the plane. The filmmakers overcome the difficulty of not knowing what was going on inside the young woman’s head by inserting flashbacks to her troubled marriage and her father’s constant encouragement to be brave. As far as psychological motivations for Neerja’s actions go, this is all we get.
Like the January release Airlift, Madhvani’s movie puts Neerja at the front of the action. She alone, among the entire crew, keeps her wits about her and tries to get a handle on an impossible situation. She tries to negotiate with the ill-prepared and increasingly hysterical hijackers, including a superb Jim Sarbh as a trigger-happy psychopath, comforts a mother whose son is plucked out of the crowd and executed, conceals the passports of the American passengers on board to prevent them from being used as bargaining chips, and finally sacrifices herself to protect children from gunfire. In this ready-made story of valour, it is memories of the love of her mother Rama (Shabana Azmi) and her father Harish (Yogendra Tiku) rather than the support of her colleagues that appears to give Neerja courage under fire.
Madhvani, an advertising filmmaker who made the psychological drama Let’s Talk in 2002, is deeply respectful of Neerja’s story as well as the conventions of the hijack sub-genre. All the elements are present in full throttle, including jittery hand-held camerawork, moments of sheer terror, glimpses of the vulnerable passengers (including children and a pregnant woman), and the efforts of authorities in Karachi to initiate a rescue. The portrayal of the Pakistanis as fumblers who potentially contribute to events is an unnecessary concession to nationalist sentiment, but the rest of the time, Neerja is about the individual and not the nation.
Madhvani fulfils the brief of delivering a stirring and sensitive account of bravery at the risk of making the narrative predictable to a fault. Neerja is a taut tearjerker that aims for a lump in the throat rather than full-out bawling. The inter-cutting and inserts of flashbacks balance manipulation and realism. The sequence in which the Bhanots receive Neerja’s corpse is beautifully handled, in large part due to Azmi’s typically assured performance. The film rests on the fragile shoulders of Sonam Kapoor, and she makes the best possible effort despite her limited abilities to convey Neerja’s terror and strength, which comes, as Rama later says, from some unknown place.
Kapoor’s babyish voice and coquettish mannerisms only highlight Neerja’s youth. The air hostess was two days short of 23 when she died. The movie based on her life accords her full respect, at the risk of sacrificing head for heart. Perhaps heroism is not so complex, after all.