Her story is one-of-a-kind. She displayed courage in the face of extreme danger. In fact, her heroics are extraordinary. She is, till date, the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peace-time gallantry award. I had not heard her name till I first saw her on a chart of Ashoka Chakra recipients in the sixth grade. I read up the little information the Internet has on her. I came across the same chart four years later and again read up about her, perhaps understanding her actions in a better manner. Her actions cannot possibly be matched.
Neerja Bhanot was a 23 year old flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Bombay to New York City, with stopovers at Karachi and Frankfurt (September 5, 1986). 380 passengers and crew were reduced to 377 at Karachi where, upon getting the news of the hijacking, the pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer all fled the cockpit to the main airport. Miss Bhanot became the overall crew in-charge for the next sixteen hours. The five terrorists were from the Abu Nidal Organisation, a Palestine-based terror group. Miss Bhanot, along with other crew members, hid the passports of the American passengers. Just before that, Rajesh Kumar, an Indian who had just been naturalised as a US citizen became the first victim of the hijacking after negotiations to get the crew to return to the aircraft failed. Karachi Airport authorities continued to negotiate with the terrorists but failed. As night fell, the main electricity of the aircraft shut down and emergency lights came on. The panicky terrorists opened fire. One of the passengers, who had earlier been handed a piece of paper on which instructions on how to open the emergency door were written, opened it. The crew assisted the passengers in de-planing. Of the 377 passengers and crew on-board the aircraft before the lights went out, 357 survived. Miss Bhanot was killed by the hijackers while helping passengers escape. The hijackers were captured by the commandos of the SSG under Brigadier Tariq Mehmood. On 26th January 1987, Miss Bhanot was posthumously awarded India’s highest gallantry award in peacetime: the Ashoka Chakra. She has also been awarded the Ministry of Civil Aviation Award (India); the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award, the Justice for Crimes Award and the Special Courage Award (all from the USA); and the Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat (Pakistan). The Indian Postal Service released a stamp in her honour in 2004. A square has been named after her in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar area. The Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust annually presents the Neerja Bhanot Award to a lady who has faced social injustice, has tackled the injustice with grit and determination, and has extended support to other ladies in similar distress.
The film itself is superbly made. It covers a time period of 368 days smoothly with a strong story and fantastic performances.
DIRECTION: Ram Madhvani has done a great job. The film is incredibly realistic and a large part of credit for that goes to Madhvani and the producers. He hasn’t used any fancy locations to bring false beauty to the film. An aircraft serves as his set for a majority of the 122 minute running time. The aircraft itself is so well-constructed and decorated (for lack of a better word) that one could mistake the film for having been shot in an actual aircraft.
STORY/SCREENPLAY: Based on a true story, one goes in knowing what the film is about. After the disclaimer appears, one becomes slightly cautious since it states that a large part of the film’s events may be fictionalised. But the story by Saiwyn Qadras doesn’t for even a minute seem fictionalised. All the events that take place at the Bhanot family’s residential society are perhaps like any other residential society. The Hindustan Times office isn’t swanky. The build-up in the story is constant and natural. Qadras does an equally good job with the screenplay, which moves along nicely. There are no needless slo-mo sequences and the screenplay, like the story, is very believable.
DIALOGUE: Neerja is, in a way, a tri-lingual film, with dialogues in Hindi, English and Arabic. There are no heavy dialogues and most of it is like the way people usually speak. The usage of Arabic is very interesting. I don’t remember watching a single Hindi film with as much dialogue from a state within the country. The Arabic is spoken well by the actors. Some of the Hindi dialogue has that nice sounding Punjabi touch to it, especially some of the lines spoken by Shabana Azmi.
MUSIC: I haven’t listened to the music album of the film but the background score is really well done.
EDITING: The editing allows the movie to move smoothly. The absence of over-dramatic sequences is a big positive.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Mitesh Mirchandani has done a wonderful job in cramped conditions. He uses the cabin lights very well and the shot-taking is done well, with hand-held cameras also being used. One thing Mirchandani has nailed is the absence of sepia. Many cinematographers use sepia in varying degrees to portray the age of the on-screen events. There are some filmmakers (read Sanjay Gupta) who love sepia way too much. Anyone who watched Musafir and Kaante got tired of it.
PERFORMANCES: Shabana Azmi as Rama Bhanot is brilliant. She brings courage, emotion and simplicity to the character with ease. Yogendra Tikku as Harish Bhanot is also extremely good. Some actors whose names I failed to catch in the credits acted very well: the four terrorists (the best of whom was Jim Sarbh), the Bhanot brothers and all the passengers of Flight 73. Shekhar Ravjiani must’ve been a tricky choice but he is very effective in his role as Jaideep. Sonam Kapoor, take a bow. When she was picked for the movie, I was apprehensive, to say the least. She has delivered the finest performance of her career till date. A huge round of applause for an amazing turnaround.
Miss Bhanot’s valour is different in its nature. She displayed true human spirit in her actions. Such are things legends are made of and Neerja Bhanot is, after all, a legend!
My rating for Neerja: 10/10. On Sunday, my review for Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant and next week, Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo & Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Aligarh.