Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Jim Sarbh
Director: Ram Madhwani
Director Ram Madhwani’s Neerja is a rather well-made film, not counting the big hug to the whole world from Neerja Bhanot’s real mother at the beginning and her screen mother’s my-beti-strongest speech at the other end which begins well but all too soon sinks into simulated, tacky melodrama. There’s even an orchestrated uprising of hands into salutes.
Neerja Bhanot, the head purser of the Bombay-Karachi-Frankfurt-New York Pan Am flight that was hijacked by four armed Palestinian terrorists on September 5, 1986, was awarded bravery awards by three countries posthumously, including the Ashoka Chakra, for showing exemplary courage and presence of mind that saved the lives of many passengers and crew. She truly deserves our salutes. She was exceptional. She was special. She was 23.
But she deserves reflective, honest salutes. And if the film’s writer, Saiwyn Quadras, and the director knew when to stop, the salutes would have come, voluntarily, in cinema halls across the country. They cheat us of this special moment by giving us a sort of speech for dummies on the message to draw from Neerja Bhanot’s life. I had another problem with the film.
Madhwani’s film tells Neerja’s personal story well, the professional not so much. We get to know who she was, what happened to her and what she did. But the hijack story gets short shift. Though there is action on the plane, it’s like a dry chronology of events. The film is much more invested in her family life than it is in the 16 hours she spent on the hijacked plane. And therein lies the film’s real power and shortcoming.
Women rarely qualify for biopics in India, not counting courtesans and goondis. Only Dirty Picture, Bandit Queen and Mary Kom come to mind. So it’s heartwarming that a film has been made on Neerja Bhanot. It’s most welcome. We are thrilled. But why focus so much on the personal and so little on the professional? Why go on and on about the sweet, adorable beti, and give us so little of the model and Flight Attendant N. Bhanot? I felt cheated, again.
Neerja opens in Karachi, on September 4, 1986, a day before the hijacking. Four men belonging to Abu Nidal Organisation — Mansoor, Fahad, Safarini and Khalil — are going over their plan to hijack the plane, to either demand the release of some Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus and Israel or, perhaps, crash the plane into a target in Israel. Their ammunition has arrived — AK-47s, grenades, a plastic explosives belt.
Cut to Bombay, to Neerja (Sonam Kapoor), the pyaari beti not just of her parents, Rama (Shabana Azmi) and Harish (Yogendra Tiku), but also the whole Navjeevan Society where they live. She’s a fan of Rajesh Khanna, and is called, pyaar se, Laado. There’s also a suitor, and parents approve.
The film gets to the hijacking briskly, focusing more on her role than the politics of the hijackers or on the other people on board. Only Rajesh Kumar, a 29-year-old Indian American who was make to kneel at the doorway of the aircraft and shot within a few minutes of the hijacking, gets some screen time. He was one of the 20 who died that day. The rest don’t figure.
We see Neerja’s quick thinking and reaction, how she tried to save American passengers, but the people on board the plane — passengers and crew — are not given even a cursory once over.
While on the plane the film toggles to scenes at home, flashbacks to her traumatic marriage to a horrible man in Doha. Neerja’s back story lights up her character and places her and her worried parents in a pool of emotions because it invests in them. That, sadly, doesn’t happen on board.
The plane is full — pregnant lady, unaccompanied minors, crying grandmother, white quaking man — but it has no life, no characters. That’s why Neerja ends up saving not real people, but basically being the glorious and brave beti of her parents.
When the film ends, emotionally we are not on the plane. We are not swelling with pride at the courage of a flight attendant who could have escaped, but didn’t. We are mourning with the listless Pomeranian in her house in Navjeevan Society. We are with the daughter who once called her father from Doha, and with the father who, at the other end of the ISD call, sensing that something is wrong, tried to impart some strength so that she stays strong and alive, by asking, “Bahadur bachcha kaun?” That question will stay with you forever.
That and Sonam Kapoor’s face, because the film focuses so much on it.
Sonam Kapoor is rather affecting as the suffering, silent wife of an abusive husband, but is out of her depth in the aisles of Pam Am flight 73. She totally looks the part, but just can’t act it.
Incapable of expressing any emotions other than the three primary ones — giggly happy, goofy and weepy sad — she acts out the ordeal on the plane by pulling strange faces. Eyebrows are knitted and mouth is twisted into vowel shapes.
I think it’s time Ms Kapoor devoted some time to learning the craft of acting else she will remain a better clotheshorse than an actress. Because, no matter how many interviews you give to friendly and compliant journalists, how much you talk about getting inside a role, under the skin of a character, at the end the camera catches and conveys the truth — whether even a single thought dwells underneath that pretty face.
The film has several close-ups of her and in the ones that are on board the flight she conveys nothing because there is nothing there. It’s just a pretty face with no emotions, no feelings. A slight worry, perhaps, about the mascara and lipstick.
Ms Kapoor is lucky that Neerja Bhanot’s life is extremely powerful material. It’s an emotionally explosive story and we are moved by it even before we’ve entered the hall. She’ll ride on that emotion for a while.
The opposite is the problem with Shabana Azmi whose face is slowly evolving into a very interesting version of Shaukat Azmi’s. Azmi is very good as the perennially worried middle class mummyji. She even puts on an exaggerated Punjabi accent. But at the end she ramps up the histrionics to a corny high, going out not gently and memorably but with bathos. Sometimes less is more. Yogendra Tiku, who gets much less screen time than Shabana, is very good, very real. As are the actors playing the hijackers, especially Jim Sarbh who plays Khalil....