For those not in the know, Neerja is based on the true story of Neerja Bhanot, a simple part-time model, part-time air stewardess who saved a number of lives on an ill-fated flight traveling from Mumbai to New York via Karachi, when it was held to ransom by terrorists.
The film notably keeps restraint in its direction, which is a great achievement by director Ram Madhvani. What could have easily been a ‘gun-toting, crazy Islamists versus sobbing victims situation’ is thankfully rejected for a more subdued tale of a young 23-year-old girl, whose bravery and cunning helps to minimise the number of casualties – in what could have been a real bloodbath – without raising a fist let alone a gun. This is as testament to the remarkable actions of the real-life Neerja Bhanot as it is to Madhvani’s admirable control.
The thriller genre asks for a story where an ordinary person finds themselves in an extraordinary situation, and Neerja really hits this nail on the head. From the beginning, we’re introduced to Neerja’s loving middle-class family, her unrequited love interest (a short-but-impressive debut by musician Shekhar Ravjiani) and hints at a disturbed previous relationship. The details of Neerja’s past are important to the story, but the flashbacks could have been shorter. Albeit a sluggish pace and dialogue tending towards exposition in the first half, scriptwriter Saiwyn Kadras should be commended for a taut, compelling second half. The claustrophobic nature of the film becomes so immersive that even I was reaching to check if my seatbelt was on halfway through the movie.
It was refreshing to see Muslim terrorists whose actions weren’t motivated purely in the name of ‘JIHAAAAAD!!!’ but for negotiating the release of their brothers from prison; and to also see human traits to some of the group when the most highly strung terrorist Khalil – superbly played by newcomer Jim Sarbh – completely loses it as the terrorists increasingly realise that they have no way out. Though portrayed to finally be of some action, the Pakistani government officials often come across as fumbling idiots. With the exception of a couple of characters, even the plane crew and passengers hardly get a look in as active heroes, with Neerja taking centre stage as the main person who tries to make any difference. With a film like United 93 (also based on a true story), we see how air control, crew and passengers alike work together to try and stall the terrorists, sometimes acting as obstacles to one another’s methods. If we saw more of the passengers or crew opposing Neerja’s suggestions, this may have benefitted the film by giving more conflict aka more drama.
Leading the film like a pro, this is undoubtedly Sonam Kapoor’s greatest performance to date. After a string of romcoms as spoilt daddy’s girl characters, Neerja gives Sonam the depth of very few female characters in Indian Cinema at the moment. The appearances of Sonam and the real life Neerja are also hauntingly similar. However, despite such a role, there are times especially in the first half where it feels Sonam still hasn’t matured enough to play a role of such stature. Her character arc is also quite unsatisfactory – when the terrorists first come on board, protocol seems to come quite easy to Neerja as she confidently alerts the pilots immediately to their presence. A more satisfying arc would show Neerja slowly emerging as a hero from ineptitude than to be a hero throughout. Whether this was the case with the real-life story of Neerja shouldn’t matter – at the end, it’s a film, not a documentary.
Shabana Azmi meanwhile gives an unforgettable portrayal as Neerja’s optimistic mother, who never gives up hope on the survival of her child. The warmth and love that she shows throughout the film is endearing and really plucks at the heartstrings without ever once feeling manipulative.
If there is one thing that the film should be commended for, it is its moral core. Neerja Bhanot was a hero who saved lives not by harming those who wanted to harm others, but by appealing to their humanity. The story of Neerja Bhanot is an important one, and one that will hopefully be seen by many, and more importantly inspire many.