Even as you enter the cinema hall for Neerja, you get a feeling that usually begins to froth and rise within you while you stand in line to collect your boarding pass for your flight. And that feeling yerks as you board the flight and look at the aircraft crew, knowing for the duration of the flight, you have no choice but to hand over your life’s most precious belonging – your life – to them and pray that you never have to use the oxygen mask or reach down below your seat for the life jacket. That feeling passes over as you munch on your snacks or sip your drink, and when you land, you feel a sense of relieving achievement, knowing within that you owe your well-being to that smiling staff and the suave, reassuring voice over the speakers. Until your next flight.
For Neerja, however, you know right away the brave and tragic denouement of Neerja Bhanot’s life. And you collect your boarding pass with a heavy heart, and watch the unbelievably true story of Neerja unfold. Directed by Ram Madhvani and written by Saiwyn Quadras, Neerja is a compelling watch of a story so powerful and gripping, it sucks you in right from the beginning and keeps you in your seat till in the end, stunned, moved, and shocked. With editor Monisha R Baldawa and cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani, Madhvani opens the movie with a quick see-saw between Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) joining her apartment complex’s celebrations late at night, her parents, Rama (Shabana Azmi) and Harish (Yogendra Tiku), brothers , and the rest of the residents cavorting to an electronic update of Sachin Dev Burman’s “Bye bye miss goodnight” (Prem Nagar), while a gang of terrorists unfold and build up their insidious plan in Karachi. This is extremely nifty, the movie ripping at a pace that leaves you no choice but get into the mise en scène of a family in Bombay and a desperate gang in Karachi – one warming you with love and care, the other chilling you as they play out their edified version of a plan so dangerous and mad, it might have seemed preposterous, had you not known how it shook the world.
This is also the time when Ram Madhvani sets up cinematic props and manipulative anchors in Neerja’s plot that you can see a mile off, and you think to yourself quite confidently that when he does drop them into your lap, you won’t fall for the bait. More of that later. The plot converges superbly from Bombay and Karachi into the Karachi airport, and then Madhvani kicks off the horror of the hostage situation, that also propels the scared Neerja into the first of what would be a series of acts of bravery that also display her presence of mind and compassion. You also quickly get introduced to the passengers, some more invested in the plot than others, but you get a real life sense of the 376 passengers and 19 crew members aboard Pan Am flight 73 that’s thrown into an air pocket of terror and fright by the terrorists. And as news of the hijack breaks, you also feel the pain of uncertainty and worry stab you, and Madhvani keeps you at the edge of your seat throughout, alternating between anxiety and suspense, while you marvel at the real life Neerja’s sheer gumption and guts, wondering how on earth she did it.
It is this compelling and fraught real life story that keeps the movie in full propulsion throughout, even as Sonam’s acting skills are tested and simulated mercilessly. And her act is a mixed bag. In some scenes, she’s absolutely adorable and likeable, while in the close-up shots in the aircraft, where you expect her face to be host to a riot of expressions in a situation dripping with stalagmitic horror, she seems to be emoting by the book – and I could almost see her nodding to the director as he instructed her on what and how to do it. But note her superbly tremulous fingers when she picks up the phone to make an announcement to the passengers, a gun to her head, and you wish some of those tremors had travelled subtly to her face as well. But again, with Madhvani’s searing direction, an all too powerful supporting cast and the realization of who Sonam’s portraying, you’re almost ashamed to point to these nits.
As Khalil, one of the terrorists on board the plane, Jim Sarbh is astounding. He’s so menacing, threatening to explode into a manic lava of violence at any point, you cringe in your seat in fear along with the passengers. Then of course, there’s Yogendra Tiku as Harish Bhanot, Neerja’s father, who gets news of the hijacking in his Hindustan Times office. He’s so believable and real in his conversations with his wife –trying his best in a rapidly losing game of stolidness – he’s absolutely a winner. Shabana Azmi as Rama Bhanot is in top notch form, nailing the universal image of the loving and worried mother. Her scenes with Sonam are sprinkled with genuine maternal love; her scenes of her trying to hold it all together are heartbreaking. And her climactic speech is the stuff for which hankies were invented. She is brilliant, simply. There’s also the nice, winsome appearance by composer Shekhar Ravjiani as Jaideep, Neerja’s suitor. He’s so absolutely likeable and charming, you wish things would go his and Neerja’s way. Speaking of composers, music director Vishal Khurana’s background is superb, nailing the tension and the dread very effectively.
Neerja wouldn’t be the movie it is without Anna Ipe and Aparna Sud’s production design. The airplane interiors are so well recreated, they push you into claustrophobic fear right away. And then, for the nth time, Ram Madhvani’s direction – he pushes all the right editorial and directorial buttons and creates a very, very engrossing first half. So engrossing, in fact, that the interval calling card hits you like a whiplash, just when you’re about to lose control over your tears of sorrow and fear. Madhvani keeps the second half equally tight, with even the flashbacks adding to another angle of emotional manipulation. You see it, and you are prepared for him to start using these props at the right time. And use them he does. Each one of the prop that you anticipated, he throws into your lap, and without realizing it, you catch every one of them and press them to your aching heart. When Neerja’s body arrives at the airport, you don’t want to see it – and Madhvani keeps it low key, yet he drags you into the waiting room, and you feel a sickening sense of sorrow envelope you. And then, he gets in Shabana Azmi to make that speech. As the speech progresses, you feel the sorrow hit your eyes, your throat, and your being, and you want Madhvani to stop – you can’t bear the pain, you want time to wipe your tears and swallow that giant lump of loss in your throat, but he doesn’t stop. He relentlessly, effectively tears and breaks your heart. And then you realize what’s happened.
If, you, as an audience, experiencing Neerja’s life in a cinema hall, can’t bear the pain, what is the quantum of heartbreak that Neerja’s parents and family in real life went through? Can this pain ever be measured? Is there any redemption for such families? How can any award even come close to reducing the pain? And finally, amidst all the madness that we see around us today, can we just stop the noise, shut up, and be thankful to the real life heroes and heroines such as Neerja, for what they did?
Watch the trailer of Neerja here: