Ashwati Vipin | March 01, 2016
A Pan Am flight from Mumbai to New York City ran into a frightening situation during it’s stopover in Karachi, Pakistan in September, 1986. Hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists, the plane was stranded at the airport for many hours. Neerja Bhanot was the head purser on that Pan Am flight 73 and this is the inspiring story of her undying spirit to help others in need.
What struck me as wonderful throughout the film was its authenticity. In an industry which is marred by a dearth of subtlety and outrageous over-acting, Ram Madhvani’s Neerja is a wonderful outcast. You’re hooked to the story right from the start and while there is a sense of impending doom, you still want to sit through the whole journey. Ram Madhvani does well with the hand-held camera shots to bring the sense that the viewer is in the midst of all the action. It does take a little getting used to but eventually the discomfort is forgotten as the story absorbs you. The juxtaposition of Neerja’s preparation for the flight and the terrorists’ planning is wonderfully done. With a run time of 2 hours, the film is compelling and neatly packed with excellent editing. There isn’t a single moment where you feel detached from the story.
The film is also held together by a great screenplay and lead and supporting actors. Abra Zahoor and Jim Sarbh play the lead terrorists that hijacked the plane. Their performances are multi-faceted ranging from confident men on a mission to desparate, menacing and helpless individuals who are forced to negotiate with authorities when they realise the pilots have successfully escaped the flight. Zahoor and Sarbh are fantastic in their portrayal of the extremists.
Yongendra Tiku and Shabana Azmi’s angst and fortitude as parents of a child in distress will truly move you. Shabana Azmi is one of my favourite actors of all time and this film is another feather to her very full cap! Her tumultous journey from finding out about the plane’s hijacking to her unwavering hope and eventual breakdown on receiving her daughter’s body is heart-achingly beautiful. Her monologue at the end of the movie is a great homage to her prowess as one of the best actors India has ever seen.
I must admit, I had my doubts about Sonam Kapoor before I went into the film but she slips into the character with ease and as the film moves along, Sonam is forgotten and it’s Neerja Bhanot all the way. She embodies Neerja and her captivating spirit very effectively and this is most certainly Kapoor’s career best performance. She suits the physicality of the role and her emotions are for most part of the film, on point. Her evolution as an actor is particularly evident in scenes where she reacts to being manhandled by the terrorists and when she must pay heed to their odd requests. Often these situtations remind her of her turbulent past and these flashback are portrayed with finesse.
Neerja Bhanot was barely 23 years old (the youngest recipient of the Ashoka Chakra*) when she lost her life while saving passengers from the hijacked plane. This film is a window into her life and heroism in the face of great adversity.
*The Ashoka Chakra is India’s most prestigious award for bravery. Neerja Bhanot is the first civilian to have been bestowed the award and is the youngest recipient.
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