The film looks at flight purser Neerja Bhanot’s heroic efforts in saving lives and laying down her life in the line of duty during the hijack crisis of Pan Am Flight 73 on 5th September, 1986 at Karachi Airport.
You so want to like Neerja and be moved by it even before entering the theatre. After all, the incredible tale of courage and resilience under fire by a brave young flight purser, not yet 23, is a riveting story that has been waiting to be told on film. And while the film holds its protagonist in deservedly high esteem, by the end of its 122 minutes running time, you do feel let down by this ode to India’s youngest winner of the Ashoka Chakra and several other bravery awards. At least, I did.
Admittedly, the challenge for director Ram Madhvani was huge. The outcome of the event is well-known so it is all the more critical how the film plays out for the viewer to be engaged in the narrative flow, to root for Neerja, her crew, the innocent passengers and get that lump in the throat when she is shot by the hijackers while saving lives. I confess, I did get the emotional wallop as I came out of the theatre but not from the main body of the film. It was the end titles playing out with a collage of photographs of Neerja Bhanot herself that moved me tremendously. And to think that her whole life ahead of her was snuffed out by by the horrific hijack where 20 passengers were killed, besides Bhanot, and a hundred injured, is tragic to say the least.
As a film, while lauding its intent and having its moments, Neerja is let down by its screenplay that is a little too simplistic as it lacks the layering and ups and downs to make for a richer, more emotional film. Barring Neerja and her parents – and that too, to a certain extent – none of the other characters are fleshed out satisfactorily, which is critical for the telling of a good human story. And while the story understandably focusses on Neerja, it does so at times at the cost of the other characters thus reducing the film to simple black and white terms. For instance, the film seems to suggest that only Neerja had her wits about her amongst the crew who do nothing except follow her orders when needed. Which I think, is a trifle unfair to rest of the crew on the plane who also did their duty in the face of adversity, even if they survived. We also don’t see enough traits/characteristics of the passengers to care enough about them except on a very broad level of innocent people caught in a terrible situation. Cinema works, as Hollywood director Cecil B deMille said, when we have characters we can love or hate so we go along with them. Neerja falls short in this regard and does not engage us as much as it should. Leave alone the good guys, even the bad guys too are mostly cardboard cut out bad guys. On the actual Pan Am 73 flight, one of the hijackers, armed Palestinian men belonging to the Abu Nidar Organization, explained to British passenger, Michael Thexton, their cause and how he absolutely hated violence but he had no choice after what America and Israel had done to his land and to his life.
The film also has its moments of unsubtle filmi moments as everything in the beginning sequence already tells us Neerja is going to die, which, as it is, those who are familiar with Neerja’s story already know. So be it the quote from Anand or looking for a missing ring got from a Pandit to keep Neerja safe, it just hammers in what is going to happen. Sadly, even the potentially strong emotional moments in the film – the singing of Mere Sapnon Ki Rani in the plane or the breaking up of the scene in the end for the child to get Neerja’s message to her mother – don’t quite come off. The flashbacks, while giving us Neerja’s back story of escaping an abusive marriage, seem more to make her a more rounded character and provide information for us rather than what she might actually have been thinking through the hijack, but that I admit, is hypothetical.
On the acting front, I would say this is Sonam Kapoor’s best performance to date but the fact remains she isn’t a very good actress to begin with, and even here, for all her sincerity, her limitations as an actress do show up rather apparently. Shabana Azmi expertly adds the required weight to her character of Rama Bhanot, Neerja’s mother, and equips herself beautifully in the scene where the family receives Neerja’s body and in the speech she gives a year later. Yogendra Tiku as her father, Harish, has his moments while Jim Sarbh is fine as one of the terrorists in a role that plays to the gallery. Technically, the film is so-so with the songs misplaced and the editing a little choppy.
I, for one, am glad that films are being made on our heroes, and in spite of its flaws, I hope Neerja is still widely seen, especially by the younger generation. But as more and more biopics come out in india, I also look forward to them hopefully raising the bar in terms of filmmaking as well. For now, I stand and salute Neerja Bhanot. I only wish I could do that to the film as well.
Hindi, Drama, Action, Color