Going by the taut trailers of the film in the run up to its release, one already knew what it was about—the story of the brave flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, who risked her life in the line of what she considered was her duty. In 1986, the flight she was on was hijacked by a group of Palestinian terrorists in Karachi. She was barely 23 when she died saving other passengers, becoming the youngest and first woman to earn the Ashok Chakra posthumously.
Etching the ordeal alive on the big screen was adman and director Ram Madhvani's challenge with Neerja, and he does full justice. Not only that, Sonam Kapoor as Neerja, known more for being a fashionista than her acting abilities gets the top mark here. This might just be her best film to date.
Madhvani sets the ominous tone almost immediately. As the balloons start puncturing in the opening scene of a neighbourhood party, they symbolically sound like gunshots. A warm, close-knit middle-class family's life and their routines run parallel with the terrorist group's. Both wake early. Both pray. Both get ready to carry out what they consider is their duty. Till both converge and onto a chilling, heart-breaking climax.
The camera work is largely documentary style. The team has done a good job of recreating the pre-liberalisation era of the 1980s: Doordarshan on TV, landlines, Stardust magazine, typewriter, old style newspaper office, the early Maruti 800 and Fiat cars.
Neerja is an effervescent, bright girl who's a big Rajesh Khanna fan. (Never mind the few repetitive mawkish dialogues from his films that the family harps on.) She also models and wants to make it big, flying high. There are flashbacks to a back story of her having briefly been in an abusive marriage.
Set against the ordeal of the hijack, with the requisite edge-of-the-seat tension, is the story of a young girl who finds courage from the everydayness and support of her family to become the hero of a story that is being told 30 years later.
Apart from a good cast, slickly told and edited tale, a noteworthy aspect is the male characterisation. Man as father (Yogendra Tiku)—supportive, encouraging of his daughter, man as husband in an arranged set-up—patriarchal, abusive, man as partner/future husband (Shekhar Ravjiani)—loving, sensitive, nurturing, man as terrorist (Jim Sarbh is particularly noteworthy for the fanatic zeal he manages to convey through his eyes)—angry, fearful, violent, wayward... And how each play a role in Neerja's life. The bathroom scene where Neerja locks herself in to gain composure while the hijacker threatens to break it down reminds her of the pain her ex-husband had unleashed when they were briefly married and living in Doha. Young Bhanot found courage to come out of a dysfunctional marriage. And she found courage again to stand her ground against the terrorists.
You might want to ensure that the seat in the theatre is close enough to the washroom, in case a good bawl comes on as soon as the credits start rolling.
Director: Ram Madhvani
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Ravjiani, Jim Sarbh