The real-life story of Neerja Bhanot, a heroine during a 1986 plane hijacking in Karachi, transforms a young unassuming flight attendant into a celebrated figure in India, Pakistan and also the United States. Re-told three decades later, Madhvani’s phenomenal Neerja captures a hair-raising and empowering snapshot of a strong woman whose bravery helped save countless lives in the precious hours following hijacking.
With Saiwayn Qadras’s (Mary Kom) razor-sharp script, the stage is set by two parallel timelines that converge at the most inopportune moment. The civilized arc traces a middle-class suburban Neerja who is playfully obsessed with Rajesh Khanna movies, dabbles in modeling and works as a fight attendant. The not-so-civilized alternate arc follows four Palestinian terrorists as they prepare to raid the plane upon arrival in Karachi. When the plane is raided and the pilots—tipped off by Neerja—escape through a cockpit hatch, all hope appears lost as almost 400 passengers find themselves at the mercy of machine gun-toting belligerents.
Mitesh Mirchandani’s taut camerawork shows only one side of the story at a time.
In the crucial early hours of the incident, a camera that is off-kilter underlines the uncertainty and sense of danger.
The onboard danger is inadvertently intensified by Karachi airport security who are well-intentioned, but overwhelmed by lack of preparation. With rescue commandos nowhere to be seen, at least initially, all signs point to a potential disaster in the making.
With marvelous editing, the two sides of the story—with flashbacks to Neerja’s family life, her supportive parents (Azmi as a distraught mom and Tikku as a distressed father), her escape from an abusive marriage and possible new beau (Ravjiani)—convey volumes without hinting at what will happen. The flashbacks to celebrations of ordinary events—birthdays (with Rajesh Khanna era music, of course)—serve as reminders to the very not-so-ordinary real danger Neerja finds herself in and exactly just how much humanity is at stake.
In a different pre-9/11 geo-political setting, Madhvani’s movie also singularly indicts the lax airport security in Karachi. The flimsy veneer—the bad guys pose as Libyan diplomats and are wearing full airport security uniforms—is made so much easier because the perps so easily blend into airport fauna. As a result, the terrorists practically stroll onto the runway where a massive Boeing 747—Pan Am Flight 73 originating from Bombay and going to New York via Karachi and Frankfurt—waits in repose like an unprotected flyable super-fortress.
Sarbh’s nascent terrorist has serious anger management issues. His 60-second mid-ship meltdown, an intensely private exhibition of frustration at events that don’t quite pan out as expected, is all the more terrifying given the trigger-happy mode he has exhibited ever since a pre-attack gathering in a Karachi dump for a possible martyrdom final prayer. His unpredictable posture becomes as much of an artifact of the hostage drama as his periodically cocking of an automatic pistol at Neerja’s forehead.
Kapoor’s jaw-dropping turn as Neerja inhabits an unlikely figure. She does not set out to prove anything and yet figuratively becomes the face of any hope there is against the terrorists successfully commandeering the hijacked plane to Cypress. For the terrified passengers, Neerja’s protective instincts—hiding the passports of all Americans onboard, surreptitiously readying a scared passenger to possibly opening an emergency exit, comforting children traveling without parents and a mother who has lost a son—are exhibited with an unscripted spur-of-the-moment, us-or-them urgency that gradually elevate her from lead flight attendant to messiah in uniform.
After Bhaag Mikha Bhaag (2013), Khubsoorat (2014), Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) and now Neerja, Kapoor’s career is on the uptick. With such a forceful presence in what is essentially a solo-female movie, Kapoor may join Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut as rare female stars with successful solo-female Hindi movie box office hits. Neerja showcases outstanding writing, directly and acting. Even though fates had been sealed long before the writer’s first drop of ink touched paper, a halo lingers from the commendable energy Kapoor channels into her Neerja. Others could take lessons here.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.