The tragic story of Neerja Bhanot, who died while saving the lives of others, is full of tears and heartbreak. What we want to know, going into ‘Neerja’, the film based on the last two days of her 23 years on this earth, is : will it do justice to that pretty young woman with extraordinary courage?
Yes, Director Ram Madhvani’s long overdue return (where did he go missing all these years, after his terrific debut ‘Let’s Talk’?) to the screen is invested with the urgency and the sense of impending doom which tells us just how those terror-filled hours must have been like for Neerja, who was on that hopping Pan Am flight, New Delhi-Karachi-Frankfurt-New York, celebrating her first time as chief purser.
She would have celebrated her 24th birthday on the 7th of September, 1986. Instead, her bullet-ridden body comes back to her devastated family, mother Rama (Shabana Azmi), father Harish (Tikku), her brothers, and the man who loves her (Shekhar Ravjiani).
The film slides swiftly into its stride, taking us back and forth between the early morning of the 5th of September, with Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) getting ready for the flight, with her parents up and gently fussing around her, and a terrorist cell in Karachi, packing guns and grenades and gearing up for the hijacking of the Pan Am jet from Karachi airport.
The atmosphere of dread and violence is created well, for the most part. We see the hijackers brutally put down any hint of resistance. We see the terrified passengers cowering in their seats. We see the crew being cowed into submission, being jabbed repeatedly by AK 47s. And we see the exact moment when Neerja draws upon her memories of being defeated in a past life, and reaching out for steely resilience: most importantly, we see Kapoor do this, believably.
The question was always going to be, can Kapoor, who has always played itty-bitty ditsy roles before (with great success in ‘Khubsoorat’, and with not-always-satisfactory results in a string of others), carry off that demanding role?
Yes, Sonam Kapoor fumbles in a couple of initial phases, where we find a blankness rather than terror on her face. But those are only momentary. Then she locks onto the correct tone, and we get the whole complement of feelings flit across her face – from shaking with fear to finding a place of strength. Kapoor makes us believe she is, was, Neerja.
And that takes us past the few places which slacken. The lead terrorist is given a couple of ultra-histrionic moments. The end threatens to become too maudlin. There’s a completely superfluous song bunged right into the middle of it all : yes, we know it’s a flashback, but a song in a film like this? Can Bollywood ever get rid of this penchant of not trusting the audience with a film which needs to be as taut as a drum, and hamstringing it by a song?
Minus the songs and the excessive schmaltz, ‘Neerja’ could have been outstanding. But still, the film holds, and hold us with it. Both Shabana Azmi and Tikku, as the parents hoping for the best and dreading the worst for their ‘Laado’ (Neerja’s ‘pet name’), are excellent. They shine a light on the tragically-cut-short life of their daughter, a true inspirational heroine whose deeds need more than a memorial. They need to be remembered.
I came out of the theatre, wet-eyed.
Neerja star cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tikku, Shekhar Ravjiani
Director: Ram Madhvani