Neerja Bhanot was one of us.
Like any normal 23-year-old, she had aspirations of making it big in life. Her one true love was Rajesh Khanna. She was the life of any party. All she wanted for her birthday was a pretty, golden-yellow salwar kameez suit. Her parents brought her up in a way that encouraged her to be a free thinker. She had a good career in modelling. But as she told her mother, she enjoyed her time as an air-hostess too. She was going to be head purser for the first time on Pan Am Flight 73.
Neerja had gone through hell too. Something not many of us have experienced.
Her first marriage had been an abject failure. She was reduced to being the object of ridicule and all kinds of abuse by her husband Naresh. But, in a heart-warming telephonic exchange between her father and her, he says “Sabse bahadur bachcha kaun? (Who’s the bravest child of all?)” Through tears, she replies, “Main (me).”
That brings me to a quote by Mark Twain, which summarises Neerja’s life quite beautifully: Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it.
That’s the lesson you get out of Neerja’s life, and this film. It’s okay to be scared. What’s important is how you conquer that fear. Tackling such a sensitive subject, a real-life story, can make one feel a little weak in the knees. Director Ram Madhvani though, overcomes it with some A-grade direction and handles Neerja’s life story with such sensitivity and sincerity that you can’t help but just marvel at the man. Coupled with fantastic editing from Monisha R Baldawa, scenes from Neerja’s abusive marriage and her current predicament aboard Pan Am Flight 73 have been sewn together with great dexterity. It elevates Neerja from being a merely good biographical thriller to a movie that makes a statement. It almost feels as if Neerja was destined to fight her life’s circumstances by looking it in the eye. There are no unnecessary songs — the only time we hear songs are at the beginning, and at the end, and even that isn’t out of place.
In times when we have films that force patriotism down people’s throats (Holiday, Airlift, I’m looking at you), Neerja comes as a breath of fresh air. Here, there’s no India or Pakistan or USA or Russia. There’s only humanity and empathy. Even in dealing with the terrorists, there is no over-the-top heroism displayed — just calmness and braveness in the face of impending doom. At a point, you wonder whether even the terrorists appreciate what Neerja did — one of them (although mockingly) even calls her a ‘hero’. The impact of this film can be gauged by the response from the viewer: in the multiplex I went to, there was no unnecessary chatting. Everyone was silent throughout the film. And they sat even while the end credits rolled – not because it had a fancy song or end-credits scene, but because it had moved everyone. A lady sitting in my row was moved to genuine tears.
Bollywood films based on ‘real-life’ incidents often feature over-the-top performances or forcefully restrained performances that don’t seem real. In Neerja, that’s not the case. I must admit I was very worried when they cast Sonam Kapoor in the title role. I’ve never liked her ‘acting’ and I have a bias against her. Now, while she may not have won me over completely, I cannot help but admit that she has given this role her all. It is an honest, true-to-God performance and I daresay, Neerja herself would’ve been proud of her effort. She has potential to move on to greater things, this Ms. Kapoor. Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tikku do their bit beautifully as Neerja’s parents, happy-go-lucky in the best of times, yet scared for their daughter and being her pillars of support during the dark days. There’s also a nice little cameo by Shekhar Ravjiani (of Vishal-Shekhar fame).
Even though it is a Bollywood film, Neerja transcends all the tropes that come with Bollywood films — it is a message to the world that true bravery comes at a heavy price, and that if the world had a common flag, it would be titled ‘humanity’. It is essential viewing for Indian citizens, especially considering the climate of hate and divisiveness that we live in today. Neerja is a story that needed to be told, and told well. That has been accomplished. It’s up to us to give it the ovation it deserves.
Bravo, Laado, for showing us what bravery truly is.
Bravo, Sonam, for putting in a brave performance.
Bravo, Ram Madhvani, for telling this story in a way that is a credit to Neerja’s memory.