Based on the real life heroic incident of Head Purser Neerja Bhanot, who displayed tremendous courage under fire in the hijacking of the PAN AM 73, at Karachi Airport and landed up saving 359 lives of the passengers and crew out of 379. She was one of the 20, who didn’t make it. She was 1 day short of turning 23.
Ram Madhvani makes a return to Bollywood after his Boman Irani starrer debut, Lets Talk (2002). In the interim, he has worked with Aamir Khan on directing his songs for Taare Zameen Par, Satyamev Jayate, besides directing award winning advertisements. Fox Star Studios, bring to you, Ram Madhvani’s ‘Neerja’.
Why do I write it that way, because from the word go, this is a director’s film. He doesn’t waste a minute in the plot build up, throwing us straight into the heart of the action at Karachi airport, simultaneously playing out the hours before the 2 important set of people boarded the ill fated flight, the Palestinian terrorists from Karachi and Neerja and her crew from Mumbai.
To add soul to the film, the director repeatedly cuts into Neerja’s family of 2 brothers, a doting courageous dad (Yogendra Tiku) and a strong as a rock, ever worried mother (Shabana Azmi). Her broken arranged marriage with Doha based Kavi Shastri and current association with Shekhar Ravjiani, the debut by the music director, keep adding to her story in the past year, how it gave her hope and made her resilient.
Cinematography by Mitesh Mirchandani and background music by Vishal Khurana add tremendously to the fear, claustrophobia and uncertainty inside the battlefield, the aircraft. The terrorists, especially the maniac Khalil, is fantastic. The way he keeps losing his bearings and identifies Neerja to be a trouble maker right from the beginning, is fantastic. Even the altercations within the terrorists is realistically shown. Kudos to that.
It is only due to the intrinsic, realistic detailing which has gone into this film that the silly drive to the airport stands out. Why, because Neerja lives in Navjeevan Society in Bombay Central and they show them driving by Marine Drive, enroute to the airport and even making a stop outside Babulnath temple, which is no way on the way to the airport then or now.
Yogendra Tikku gives a solid performance as the ever supporting father, showing his helplessness as he breaks the news of the hijack to Shabana or as he holds on to the telephone receiver in the Hindustan Times office, knowing that something is amiss but still not being able to do anything. The actor Abu, I think, playing Khalil is brilliant.
Sonam Kapoor, delivers a performance of a lifetime and her best performance till date, right from her debut. I usually am not a Sonam fan, but the maturity with which she has delivered Neerja, is commendable. Be it her playful Rajesh Khanna impressions at home or singing his song in the plane at Khalil’s behest, at gunpoint. She literally steals your heart.
Shabana Azmi has after ages shown, what her true calibre as an actress is. In real life, she was at her peak when this incident occurred, might have been shooting for Pestonjee, I guess. As the loving mom, always harrowing her daughter about something or the other, she is good. But it is the realism that she adds, for example, when the family is counselling Neerja on her bad marriage and Shabana comes to hug Neerja, her right hand doesn’t touch Sonam at all, since they had been used for eating. Just like anyone of us would not use the fingers for anything once we touch food and usually use our palms in case of an emergency. But it is the climax, where she owns the scene, the script and the film. The way she consoles her sons, not to cry ‘manhusiyat phelti hai’ and then goes with her family to receive her daughter in the coffin, on her 23rd birthday. Ram’s brilliant direction and Shabana’s performance, leads to not a dialogue being spoken and yet stirring the right emotional strings. Followed up by the final emotional slap, is her speech, which wrenches your gut inside out and is bound to leave you with a huge lump in your throat and tears in your eyes. The mark of a brilliant performer.
Kudos to Ram Madhvani, for not only attempting to present this story, cuz God knows, such stories need to be told and retold in today’s consumerist society, but in his brilliant handling of the subject and the direction. Barring a badly placed song post interval, Ram Madhvani does a completely brilliant job at showing us the real life hero, that was Neerja Bhanot.
By: Yusuf Poonawala