Hindi Reviews

Neerja Movie Review : Unbashedly Sentimental

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It’s tough to make engaging films out of biographies. After all, the audience already knows the ending. Especially when the story is about someone like the bravery award winner (posthumous), Neerja Bhanot. Unlike the story of a Gandhi or an Ambedkar, where the director has decades worth of material to work with, young Neerja Bhanot’s story consists of a few, fateful hours. Nevertheless, director Ram Madhvani has made a compelling film with Neerja.

*****

Neerja, or ‘Laado’ as she is fondly called by her family, boards the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 in the wee hours of 5th September 1986. She leaves with the hope of a new life. She wants to let go of her tumultuous past. But, everything goes haywire when the flight is hijacked at Karachi by members of the Palestinian terrorist group, Abu Nidal Organization. The film captures the tense atmosphere in the flight, and shows us how Neerja coped with insurmountable pressure. And managed to save several lives.

*****

We all knew her fate, but we were curious to see how the film would tell her story. Would it be a taut thriller, or a sentimental mish-mash? We got our answer even before the film really began, when this disclaimer (or warning) appeared: “This is neither a biography [n]or a documentary on the Pan Am Airhostess Neerja Bhanot“.

Ram Madhvani has planned Neerja to perfection. Elements have been imaginatively added to make it more cinematically appealing. The film begins with parallel stories: the happy Bhanot family in Mumbai, and the scheming terrorists in Karachi. Jerky camera work in both sequences communicates a sense of urgency and crisis. As the flight takes off, the film takes us to the critical point with little delay. Events unfold. Tension builds. We are left feeling suffocated and anxious, just like the passengers inside the flight. The parallel narratives shift, between that of the passengers on board the flight and the Bhanot family in Mumbai.

*****

Shabhana Azmi and Yogendra Tiku deliver stellar performances as Neerja’s parents. The scene where Tiku informs Azmi about the hijacking over the phone is especially memorable, thanks to Tiku’s performance as the confused father who tries his best to comfort his wife over the phone.

Madhvani’s storytelling mettle is also apparent in scenes where Neerja draws comparisons between the hijack and her former marriage. She was abused by her husband for dowry, and her apparent ‘incompetence’. These contrasts give us a sense of Neerja’s life. An ordinary life. Someone who suffered because of an early marriage with the wrong person. Someone who can draw on the strength of her struggle and survival in her personal life, and face the current scenario.

*****

Neerja is a Rajesh Khanna fan. The references make us smile, make us cry. Especially when this star-fan connection becomes a defining moment in the climax.

After eight years in the industry, Sonam really arrives as an actress with this portrayal of Neerja. Thus far, the actress had received criticism for her acting skills. Here, she delivers a near flawless performance. In the climax, Neerja’s mother says, “I brought up my daughter in a very typical, ordinary way. One where I taught her to lower her eyes before others. I do not know how she learnt to be so brave.” Madhvani has written the character like that. Neerja is scared, and vulnerable. But she finds courage when it is needed, and shows a side both brave and benevolent. And Sonam is outstanding in scenes where she interacts casually with the terrorists. With nerves of steel.

*****

Unfortunately, as the story draws to a close, the film begins to drag its way towards sentimental mush and melodrama. Worse, in the middle of the tense chaos inside the flight, a song band appears. And jarringly reminds us that we are still watching a Bollywood family drama. And yet, despite all this, the audience is caught in the magic of this person, Neerja. Full credit to Madhvani for converting a well-documented story into a compelling drama.

*****

Her favourite star Rajesh Khanna says in the Bollywood classic, Anand, Zindagi lambi nahi, badi honiye chahiye babu moshai (Life should be big, not long).” Neerja Bhanot lived a big life. Because of the bravery she displayed in those few hours. It’s hard to imagine a 23-year old being so brave in the face of imminent death. The film forces us to salute her, forces us to keep the tissues handy.

*****

The Neerja review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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