Neerja ****/5

The real heroine.

Let’s not mince words: nearly every Indian film based on true events is utter crap.

Most of these films are ruined by cartoonish acting, amateurish direction, and melodramatic scripts that are so far from the truth, that the real story is a mere marketing ploy to get you to see a completely fictitious film.

I mean one could write an entire doctoral thesis on the sheer number of utter howlers in the Sunny Deol war film ‘Border,’ that took the story of fairly remarkable battle and massacred it with endless scenes of Indian soldiers taking 10 minutes to die after being shot 15 times so they can give a bunch of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ dialogues, surrounded by zero historical facts.

So when I saw a relatively unknown production team was going to do a story on Pan Am 73, I thought we were going to be in serious trouble. This is coming off the truly awful films ‘Airlift,’ ‘Attacks of 26/11,’ the laughable casting of Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom, and some semi well-intentioned but horribly executed duds like Guru, No One Killed Jessica, and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.

But I have to admit, generally I became less cynical about the film as it went on. There is no mindless 40 minute flashback sequence at the beginning or in the middle of the film that leaves you thinking ‘well I guess they needed to stretch it to 2 hours.’ There are some flashbacks to earlier in her life, but they are short and don’t stall the story.

Sonam Kapoor has actually been growing on me — and I think she could have singlehandedly ruined the film by overacting or worse, using the film as a vehicle to glorify herself (and God knows we’ve seen certain Bollywood actresses, and actors do that before). But thank god that didn’t happen. No stupid statements during the promotions as far as I can tell, and sadly that’s an accomplishment.

I will have to qualify my review in that detailed, and most-importantly neutral reports on the hijacking that pre-date and are not affiliated with the film are not so easy to find. Did the hijackers really act in this frenetic matter, constantly yelling, pushing, and threatening? Did they actually physically fight with each other? Did they speak this jumble of broken Arabic-English-Urdu? Don’t know. But apart from the mascara they felt less cookie-cutter than other terrorists in bollywood films. At no point will you hear some dumb speech from the terrorists about Islam, and the inevitable counter-speech from another Muslim character who has to be shoved in there to tell him what he is doing is not Islam (that guy is usually named Ali and dies in five seconds).

And apart from one, amateurish-as-usual ‘report’ from Times of India about one crew member’s reply to a facebook post I haven't found any tangible complaints from survivors about the accuracy. By now the foreign survivors will have been told a film was made and I’ve got to believe someone would have piped up somewhere if there were major omissions.

The film loses a star on three points:

#1 — The last 15 minutes are very weak to a point where you feel a different production team made it. Shabana Azmi’s dialogues needed tightening up and trimming and you almost feel like they needed to extend her screen time to justify her co-star status. There was also a literally unwatchable moment involving people saluting a coffin that looked like it came from an 80s Mithun film (if it actually happened, which I seriously doubt, okay then. But it looked embarrassing and I fast-forwarded it). Also the stupid patriotic band music was a miscue. Something more subdued was called for.

#2 — There were many interesting post-scripts that the filmmakers completely ignored. It says that the terrorists were given a life sentence, but omits that four of the five terrorists actually escaped from jail in Pakistan (one was later killed by a US drone strike, one was later caught in Bangkok and renditioned back to America to serve a life sentence). The ending itself would have been a great opportunity to splice in some real-life footage of passengers, news reports, maybe even one of Neerja’s commercials, etc. Real people actually talking about the experience. With respect I don’t need to see Shabana Azmi walking around.

#3 — In true Bollywood fashion, every passenger and crew member on the plane looked like helpless, groveling, crying peasants apart from Neerja, and this obviously is not the case in a real-life situation. It’s stuff like that which separates great from good.

And even still this won’t be a film for everyone. But I don’t think it really tries to be, and that’s a good thing.

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