Film Review: Neerja
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar and Yogendra Tiku
Director: Ram Madhvani
It was on September 5, 1986 that Neerja Bhanot boarded the Pan Am, two days before her birthday, as Head Purser from Bombay to Frankfurt. But, fate would have it otherwise as the brave heart felled to bullets of terrorists who hijacked the plane at the stop over in Pakistan. She was a well known face for various brands on billboards in Bombay and was a fairly successful model.
Sonam Kapoor essayed the role of Neerja, which she performed with aplomb and at her natural best. Perhaps, one of the best role in her career where she didn’t overdo the character, no doubt a very difficult one looking at the fact that she played Neerja Bhanot, the slained air hostess and brave heart that saved so many lives. Director Ram Madhvani and Producer Atul Kasbekar must be lauded for their effort to bring to life Neerja Bhanot, who was oblivious to me till the film’s release.
There is a tendency for film makers to script biopics on well known figures but there are very few or hardly any who would think of tapping brave hearts in some far off corners in India or the world who has gone into oblivion. Neerja Bhanot is one such brave ‘girl’ who didn’t abandon the plane but stayed on board to selflessly save lives of passengers and children, taking bullets. It’s only apt that Neerja has been honored not only by India but also United States and Pakistan. The makers brought her back through Neerja-the film-so that many of us could remember her sacrifice, selfless and heroic act. She died not only for her country but saved humanity.
It is very difficult to make a biopic since one can go horribly wrong by misrepresenting facts for box office collection or going the dramatic way. It’s a big challenge to make a 2 hours movies and more so, a biopic on the plane that was hijacked by terrorists. There are bound to be moments when scenes drag as the momentum or climax is reached but director Ram Madhvani made a compelling and engrossing film, where you feel that your world has abruptly stopped. It’s a movie made with a heart where you don’t see Sonam Kapoor the actor but the character she played, Neerja Bhanot. I wouldn’t describe the scenes as high emotional dose since it has not been forced on the audience. You feel that Neerja is someone you know for the sweetness of her character, kindness and human face. You cannot stop wondering what the real Neerja must have gone through during the hijack and seeing her world and dreams crumble. Had she an inkling that her world would crush or would she be saved? Was she thinking about her dreams of being a face on TV or bill boards? Certainly, Neerja is the only one who has the answers. It makes the eyes moist.
Back to the film. Director Ram Madhvani has tapped the emotions to the hilt, be it Neerja whom the family lovingly called Lado, a girl who drools over her Mom, Rama Bhanot played effortlessly by Shabana Azmi. One scene that touches the heart is when she cuddles to her mom on the bed saying, I love my job. It’s the small and tiny details that makes it a heart warming and true account. The scene where Sonam tells to the cabin crew, ‘I am Neerja Bhanot, I am your head purser for the flight today.” Sonam looks natural, effortless, lovely and cute.
Sonam is the real surprise package, carrying the movie on her shoulders from start to finish in a very lucid manner. There is no overdoing of emotions through theatrics where the actor echoes Neerja Bhanot and her transformation from a common woman who has a pained past to becoming a national hero. The actor stands tall and conveys the emotions that leaves a deep impact, whether the scene where she is frisked from top-to-toe showcasing the vulnerability of an innocent woman on duty or the frame where she cries in the washroom.
Sonam Kapoor has done full justice in her portrayal of Neerja, showing the character’s vulnerability as a human being, consoling passengers and showering motherly affections on scared children. No over the top shedding of tears or emotional outburst but a subdued, powerful and effective performance. The audience will fall in love and cry with the character played by Sonam, at times feeling that their world has stopped. The scene where everyone salutes her in the coffin is a very emotional moment that will make you shed tears.
Actor Yogendra Tiku who plays Sonam’s father Harish Bhanot has a strong hold over his act, controlled emotions and dialogue delivery where he tells his wife that the flight of Lado has been hijacked. Tiku makes us sit and watch the emotions unfurl which pricks the skin. The director should be lauded for sketching Neerja’s character in a fluid manner and depicting her as humanely as possible, be it her fears, past as well as strengths and weaknesses. The scene where she sits like a child unwrapping the gift, reading the letter and munching the chocolate given by her love interest Jaideep (Shekhar Rajviani) has a powerful impact. The camera focuses on Neerja and Jaideep in different places munching the chocolate is done in a subdued manner subdued, yet is a strong moment in the film.
Neerja Bhanot was a fan of Kaka aka Rajesh Khanna and the dialogue ‘Zindagi badi honi chahiye lambi nahin’ from Anand reminds us about the fallacy of life and serves as a lesson not found in text books on how to hold our might in such troubling times. Certainly, Neerja will fetch Sonam Kapoor several awards and will be one of her best remembered films for she deserves all the honor cum applause for such a stupendous performance.
The real Neerja Bhanot taught us an important lesson how we can turn fear into courage and be as selflessly as possible in life. She was the epitome of courage who has carved a place in our hearts. A brave heart who lost her life at such a young age, she will always be remembered for selflessly saving so many lives. I was stumped and remained silent watching Neerja till the end, a fitting tribute to the brave heart I was recently acquainted to.
It’s the most difficult movie review I made, something I didn’t want to write and finally did it three days after I watched the movie. It’s been 30 years since Neerja Bhanot sacrificed her life and one feels she is still with us. I bow to her. Breaking away from the traditional review format, I am not giving any stars since it will dilute the bravery of Neerja Bhanot.
There are a few glitches about the plot, shall I call it!! The terrorists look more as characters straight from the asylum and at times funny rather than dreading but it’s a minor aberration when one looks at the whole picture, standing tall in the fitting tribute to Neerja Bhanot.
Calling Neerja a cinematic gem would be something I’d like to avoid but a journey in the life of a woman, who rose to become a selfless martyr for whom humanity matters the most.
Read the letter penned by Harish Bhanot here.