Neerja

Neerja-poster

Neerja
Release date: February 19, 2016
Directed by: Ram Madhvani
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Jim Sarbh, Abrar Zahoor, Shekhar Ravjiani, Kavi Shastri

In a year where the word ‘nationalism’ has been quite the center of attention from various points of the political and societal spectrums, after Airlift, Neerja is another film that borrows from a brave rescue mission of a different kind. What’s greatly endearing about the two films is the fact that neither the former, nor the latter heavily rely on invoking jingoistic sentiments, which the currently ruling party is stacking the deck with to shush any and every dissenter’s voice.

Political commentary over.

The film starts rolling with a small recorded message from Neerja’s mother, Rama Bhanot, who passed away in December 2015. She’s apparently sat in an airplane seat, with a warm smile on her wrinkled face, blessing the viewers and the makers with a simple message. The film ends with her cinematic counterpart Shabana Azmi giving a tear-jerker of an eulogy of sorts.

Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) is an ardent Rajesh Khanna fan who infuses life into her colony’s boring gala night. Kids dance choreographically to Kaka‘s “Bye bye miss, goodnight”, albeit slightly remixed. Shots from the party are juxataposed with those of the ‘bad guys’ gearing up for their mission. Balloons are burst, one by one, at the party, while the Palestinian militants pack their bullets and grenades carefully. Neerja has to steward a late night flight to Frankfurt, forcing her to cut short on her sleep to which her mother (Shabana Azmi) is greatly pained. She wants her to quit the air-hostess job, because Neerja is already doing well in her modelling assignments.

Neerja asserts that she likes her job on the Pan Am airline and she enjoys doing it. Her journey to the flight is assisted by Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani) who has a romantic interest in her. All of this detailing is given away within the first few minutes of the film, goading her into the fateful Pan Am Flight 73 on the early morning of September 5, 1986. She’s charming, caring of the passengers’ needs and considerate of her co-employees and subordinates. She brings the flight’s Pakistani radio engineer video cassettes from India and she shows a greater work ethic even in the face of a hijack by the aforementioned Palestinian militants.

Her troubled marriage is slowly divulged, in moments where she sees herself helpless on the hijacked flight. She’s reminded of how her father always asked her to stay courageous, come what may and never tolerate any wrong, even when she’s married off to an abusive husband in a different country. The news of Neerja’s flight’s hijack is handed in the same courageous fashion by her mother, when her sons start losing their composure over the lack of any action by the Pakistani armed forces as the hijacked flight had been stuck for over eight hours at the Karachi airport.

Shabana Azmi, as the progressive Punjabi mother of the ’80s pulls at your stony heart’s strings so much, it’s not even fair. At the crux of Neerja’s valor and commitment to her job of being the flight head-purser are the values instilled in her by her family. Sonam Kapoor is straddled with a character of a certain vanity and a class that are closer to home for her. She mellows down her singsong delivery and retains her glamorous, chirpy persona and meshes it with her part.

The sense of tension and fear is palpable throughout the course of the flight’s captivity. Yes, the attackers are written in stereotypes, but Jim Sarbh with one of his angry breakdowns, in a particular scene, renders his Khaleel as his own and makes you gasp, wondering what he would do next in his fit of rage. Some of the passengers on the flight are established distinctively, thus making the viewer empathize with the potential tragedy that can fall upon them. Pieces from Neerja’s life are carefully strewn over the duration of the film, and only one amongst them, and a song, feels misplaced.

Neerja isn’t just a tale of a selfless employee putting her life in jeopardy to save the lives of others. It’s a well-told, emotionally resonating story of a family that was invested in creating a fair world for their children and helping them to make the right decision throughout their lives. Azmi’s speech at the end of the film may seem slightly long, but it’s one of the most sniffle-inducing ten minute film sequence of your life. A life snatched away too soon, yet commemorated forever. Just like her favorite line from Anand, “बाबूमोशाय, ज़िन्दगी बड़ी होनी चाहिए, लम्बी नहीं|” [Translation: Life is measured by what we do, and not how long we live.]

My rating: **** (4 out of 5)

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