By AYESHA BABAR
2016 seems to be the year when Bollywood celebrates real-life heroes on the big screen. We saw Akshay Kumar paying tribute to the ordinary Indian business who helped orchestrate the biggest civilian rescue operation in aviation history and now we have director Ram Madhvani bringing to life the story of Neerja Bhanot. Neerja, was a 23-year-old air stewardess who helped save 359 lives during the hijacking of a PanAm flight in September 1986. In recognition of her bravery, she was posthumously awarded with the bravery awards from India, Pakistan and the United States.
The film begins with showing us glimpses of Neerja’s life in Bombay with her family. She’s a beautiful young girl, with a big heart. She alludes to Rajesh Khanna’s famous dialogue from Anand, ‘zindagi bari honi chahiye, lambi naheen’ in these beginning sequences and this line would eventually come to describe Neerja and her heroic acts on the day of the fateful flight.
Laado, as she is called by her family has dreams of making something out of her thriving modelling career but equally loves to fly as a stewardess. Her mother Rama, played by the wonderful Shabana Azmi, tries to dissuade her but with little effect.
It is these scenes with her family that stay with you throughout the film and help you feel the pain the parents are feeling when they find out about the hijacking going on hundreds of miles away in Karachi. In many ways, the film is as much a story of Neerja’s family as it is of those who are stuck on the plane.
Kudos to the writer and director of the film for keeping the script crisp and realistic. Thankfully, the film avoids excessive drama with just the right amount of emotion. The expert editing aids in making the film a sharp thriller, with the viewer continuously gripped by the screenplay. The use of the hand-held camera also adds to the ominous build-up and the feeling of urgency.
I have to be honest – when I first read about the film and its story, I only had one reservation – the casting of Sonam Kapoor. After watching the film however, I am quite pleasantly surprised by her performance. Apart from the resemblance Sonam shares with Neerja and the look set by the expert makeup and hair artist Namrata Soni, Sonam delivers the performance of a lifetime. She is brave and vulnerable at the same time portraying Neerja’s character with a quiet courage and grace that is rare yet delightful to see on screen.
Not just Sonam, but all the actors have lifted the film to a special place. Shabana Azmi who plays Neerja’s mother Rama Bhanot, is subtle yet warm, making us mourn and grieve with her. Yogendra Tiku, lends able support as Neerja’s father especially in scenes with Sonam.
Overall, Neerja makes for an inspiring story of an ordinary young girl who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and looks her fear in the eye to become a hero for the over 350 lives that she saved. I found myself being swayed by emotion – smiling and laughing through the happier times with the family and weeping and feeling a heavy sadness when tragedy strikes. A word of advice – take some tissues with you as this one is a sure-shot tear jerker that is not to be missed!