Fox Star Studios and Bling Unplugged’s Neerja is the true-life story of brave airhostess Neerja Bhanot who died while saving the lives of passengers aboard a PanAm flight, after it was hijacked by terrorists.
Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor), an accomplished airhostess and also a model, is on board a flight from Bombay to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt. Although she has flown on a number of flights, this is her first flight as head purser. The moment the flight makes its first stop at Karachi, it is hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who are demanding the release of some criminals. The pilots in the cockpit escape from the aircraft as soon as Neerja informs them that the aeroplane has been hijacked, leaving the cabin crew and the 379 passengers aboard, at the mercy of the gun-toting terrorists.
The terrorists now begin to demand that the Karachi officials provide them a pilot who would take the aircraft to Cyprus but the Pakistani airport officials are buying time. The nervous and edgy terrorists kill one person who was holding an American passport, to impress upon the officials that they mean business. The passengers and cabin crew members are terrified as the terrorists threaten to kill more. But Neerja, with her unbelievable sense of equanimity and presence of mind, keeps postponing the impending carnage.
Ultimately, due to sheer grit and presence of mind, Neerja manages to evacuate and save 359 of the 379 passengers but is unable to save her own life, laying it down in the call of duty.
Alongside this chapter of braveheart Neerja Bhanot’s life are shown glimpses of her days with her family members. Her mother, Rama Bhanot (Shabana Azmi), is a doting mother. Her father, Harish Bhanot (Yogendra Tiku), always teaches her to be brave and to face all difficulties with courage. He works in a newspaper office and gets the news of the hijack before anyone else. Neerja’s failed marriage with a heartless and inconsiderate Naresh (Kavi Shastri) haunts her on a couple of occasions even while she is braving it out against the terrorists. Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani), a close friend, is keen to marry Neerja but she has not yet been able to get over the scars of the first marriage.
The film shows the hijack drama in all detail. It also shows the preparation of the Palestinian terrorists before they hijack the PanAm aircraft. Snatches from Neerja’s life mostly come in flashbacks when she is putting up a brave fight against the armed terrorists, in a bid to save the lives of her passengers, many of whom are children, women and old people.
Saiwyn Quadras has written a heart-rending story of Neerja Bhanot, borrowed from the real-life story of the braveheart airhostess of PanAm. The story has many emotional moments which shake the audience and make them cry, sob and weep. His screenplay is cleverly crafted and his weaving of the drama of her personal life into the hijack drama is absolutely outstanding. Emotion is the catchword in the drama and Saiwyn Quadras does not let go of it, making the viewers cry at regular intervals. The plight of the family members of Neerja is so poignantly brought out by the writer and director that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the audience is moved to tears every time Rama Bhanot or Harish Bhanot comes on the scene. The scenes in which Neerja is shown to be using her sharp mind to save lives are so beautifully written that instead of applauding in the cinemas with claps, the viewers silently shed tears for Neerja! It is almost as if they are scared, their thunderous applause would alert the hijackers, so real is the drama which unfolds on the screen!!
The climax speech by Rama Bhanot on the first death anniversary of Neerja is one of the best written scenes in recent times. It will move everybody to tears and the tears will flow continuously, through the entire speech. The weak-hearted would actually weep inconsolably! The victory of the film is in the fact that the audience will not move even when the end titles are rolling – it finds itself speechless and motionless. No doubt, the film will appeal more to the audience in the bigger centres but that’s because the dialogues spoken by the terrorists are kept in the foreign language and can be comprehended by the viewers by reading the subtitles, something the audiences in the smaller centres are not used to. But the emotional appeal of the entire drama is universal and that will help the film do business in small centres too.
Sanyukta Chawla Shaikh’s dialogues are natural to the core and pierce the heart, adding to the emotional appeal of the drama.
Sonam Kapoor, it seems, was born to play Neerja Bhanot. She looks every inch the airhostess she plays and she delivers an extraordinary performance. The way she conveys her poise and balance of mind in the face of adversity is indeed praiseworthy. For all those who felt, Sonam is a wooden actress and only all about looks, this film is her answer to them. Shabana Azmi is mind-blowing! She makes every single, repeat, every single scene in which she appears, memorable. She makes the audience cry buckets with a performance which may well go down as one of the best ever not just in her career or in Indian cinema but in world cinema. Every single award for the best character actress may well be Shabana’s this year. Frankly, no amount of praise would be too much for Shabana Azmi in this film. Yogendra Tiku is another splendid actor who makes the character of Neerja’s father memorable with an absolutely heartfelt performance. His expressions and his body language are to simply die for! A word here about the dialogue deliveries of Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tiku when they converse with each other after learning about the hijack operation – their dialogue deliveries are exceptional. It is delightful to see them falter, murmur, mutter and even console each other, trying to put up a brave front while internally dying a hundred deaths. Shekhar Ravjiani makes a definite mark in a special appearance, in the role of Jaideep. Kavi Shastri leaves an impression as Neerja’s wretched husband, Naresh. Jim Sarbh evokes hatred in the role of terrorist Khalil. Abrar Zahoor (as Safirini), Vikrant Singta (as Fahad), Ali Baldiwala (as Mansoor) and Ismail Mohammad Mirza (as Al Turk) lend excellent support. Sushil Tyagi is effective as Inzamam Younis. Nikhil Sangha (as Akhil Bhanot) and Arjun Aneja (as Aneesh Bhanot) are very natural. Shashi Bhushan shines as Imran Ali. Meghana Kaushik (as Sanjana), Eisha Chopra (as Debina), Sunanda Wong (as Tina), Anjali Khurana (as Dolly), Deepak Shah (as Brigadier), Aarush Rana (as Jatin Desai) and the child actors and other actors playing the passengers are all very good.
Ram Madhvani’s direction deserves distinction marks. Just from the manner in which he starts the narration, it is evident to the viewer that the man knows his job and has a distinct style of his own. Credit to him for extracting such great work from out of his cast members and for extracting the audienc’s emotions to the fullest. Although there is no scope for music, the songs (composed by Vishal Khurana) come as a good aside. Prasoon Joshi’s lyrics are, of course, rich and meaningful. Vishal Khurana’s background music is remarkable. Mitesh Mirchandani’s camerawork is extraordinary. Manohar Verma’s action scenes are very real. Production designing (by Aparna Sud and Anna Ipe) is appropriate. Monisha R. Baldawa’s editing is outstanding. Full marks to her for a job wonderfully done.
On the whole, Neerja is a surefire hit. It is a human drama which will move the audience to tears a number of times. Because the story is not too well-known, the curiosity value of the film will be immense, more so because it presents a realistic account of what happened in the hijack drama of 1986. The film may have started slow but there can be no two opinions about the prediction that the film has wings to take flight and its collections will shoot up on the strength of a hugely positive word of mouth.