Neerja

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“Sticks to the plane truth.”

Time to set up GirlsWithoutGuns.org, perhaps. For this film brings home that among the most courageous of heroines are the unarmed ones – especially when facing people who are not. Such is the case with Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York in 1986. Just before takeoff after a stop in Karachi, the plane was taken over by hijackers from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, who intended to divert it to Cyprus. Bhanot alerted the pilots, allowing them to escape and thwarting that plan. She then discarded the passports of American passengers, stopping the terrorists from targeting them. When they believed Pakistani forces were about to storm the plane, she opened the emergency exits, help shepherd passengers out, and sheltered children from the terrorists’ bullets.

Yep, there are good reasons she became the first female recipient of India’s highest decoration for bravery in peacetime, the Ashok Chakra Award, and the youngest ever. Wisely, the film opts for a largely straightforward retelling of the events of those 24 hours, beginning with Neerja’s exuberant attendance at a birthday party the previous evening, through her trip to the airport and the mundane processes of the early, peaceful leg of the flight, before all hell comes storming up the stairs into her aircraft. Against a solid background, the only element which rings significantly false is the note given to her by a friend at the airport: its clichéd contents perhaps explain the disclaimer before the movie, about “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

Otherwise, however, it seems to stick to the truth, as far as my post-film Googling has been able to tell. Yes, Neerja was a part-time model as well as an air hostess. She also had already been through an arranged marriage which failed, to an apparently abusive husband (though here again: “Any resemblance…”). But it’s her amazingly calm, yet smart approach in the face of the four hijackers that is most incredible, with death never more than a hair-trigger’s breadth away. This hellish and escalating claustrophobia of the incident is the film’s strongest suit. Madhvani plays it expertly to a crescendo, as the hijackers become increasingly irritated by what they perceive (not incorrectly) as stalling tactics by the authorities in response to demands for new pilots.

It’s likely one of those cases where less knowledge may be useful in appreciating it. For I’m sure most of the original Indian audience was already well aware of the story here; in contrast, as someone who hadn’t heard about it before, I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion, with no clue of how it would end. As we enter the New Year of 2017, it certainly qualifies as one of the strongest entries of 2016, even if – or perhaps because? – the movie goes in a different direction from the more-traditional kind of action heroines, which we usually cover on this site.

Dir: Ram Madhvani
Star: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Abrar Zahoor

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