Film Review: 'Neerja'
Opened: 19 February 2016
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Shekhar Ravjiani, Yogendra Tiku
Director: Ram Madhvani
Producers: Atul Kasbekar, Shanti Sivaram Maini, Bling Unplugged, Fox Star Studios
“Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit”, said the Asoka Chakra citation which was awarded posthumously to Neerja Bhanot who was shot dead while saving passengers in distress aboard a hijacked Pan Am flight.
There are some stories that need to be told and there are some actors that are born to play certain characters. Sonam Kapoor, despite being a little mawkish in the film's earlier scenes, was born to play Neerja, a part that will forever be etched as part of her acting legacy in a film, that is hands down one of the most riveting, nail-biting and inspiring stories of courage to grace the screen, at least in recent times.
Till date, that one, career defining part seems to have eluded Sonam, who despite clearly being capable, never got the chance to quite dig herself into, as a result of which her contemporaries seemingly raced ahead. But with Neerja, she throws down her gloves and immerses headfirst into a character, that knocks the core out of your inner being, in a performance that will inevitably go down as her best.
The ill fated turn of events in the film unravel in September of 1986, when four armed men force their way into a flight which is on transit in Karachi, holding all of the 379 passengers aboard the flight at their mercy. Unbeknown to them the flight’s head purser Neerja Bhanot alerts the pilots who flee from the cockpit leaving the extremists at wits end and in desperate need of someone to fly the plane so that they can carry out their fatal mission.
The film isn't just a tale that recounts the events that took place on board though. Madhvani, adds a human touch to it by successfully interspersing the cabin shots with Neerja’s home life which consists of her doting parents (Shabana Azmi, effortlessly nuanced, poignant and unsurprisingly brilliant) and Yogendra Tiku (poised, dignified and restrained), and a rather disturbing backstory which recounts Neerja’s abuse at the hands of a former husband, the effects of which still haunt her as she desperately tries to maintain her sanity aboard the dreaded flight, especially as the claustrophobia begins to kick in and that impending sense of doom engulfs both her and the rest of the terrified passengers on board.
How Neerja perhaps scores above Airlift a similar terrorist drama set around the same time, is that here, despite their deathly intent, the four men who play the terrorists still have depth as they go from intimidating to desperate as soon as they realise that their efforts are on course to being completely thwarted as a result of Bhanot’s smart, straightforward actions. What's more, Madhvani ensures that the mood of the film is consistently tense and engaging with a tight screenplay, and plays it out in a way that despite knowing her dreaded fate, you keep rooting for Bhanot, and hope that by some miraculous twist her life is spared and that she escapes scot free.
There are a few niggles though. The pace of the film is rudely interrupted by an unnecessary song sequence in the penultimate scenes, and Sonam isn’t as convincing in the scenes which show her as a timid, hapless woman suffering abuse silently, because somewhere deep down both she and we know, that she’d never in a million years, stand for such bullshit and the world as a whole, especially for women has evolved by leaps and bounds since the 80s.
These are but a few of the minor qualms I had with Neerja which, overall, achieves the impossible. It strikes a balance by projecting humanity, emotion, drama, thrill and suspense in equal measures, and how many Hindi films can you say that about in recent times?
Do yourself a favour and don't miss this inspiring tale of courage, inner strength and selflessness – it's a film that, although not perfect, massively raises the bar for the rest of the year – I'm going with an extremely rare, albeit well deserved, five stars.