The date was September 4, 1986; the location somewhere in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. Four terrorists, part of the Abu Nidal Organization, are busy assembling a bomb, checking their weapons, and changing into the uniforms of airport security officers. They join hands and pray for the success of their mission. If Allah answers their prayers, they will successfully hijack Pan Am flight #73, currently in flight from Mumbai. They plan to hold 361 passengers and 19 crew members hostage, and then force the pilot to fly to Cyprus demanding the release of imprisoned Abu Nidal members.
Neerja Bhanot’s day starts early on September 5th. Gently nudged awake at one in the morning by her doting mother, Rama, Neerja dresses in her flight attendant’s uniform and stops at the home alter to ask God’s blessings for the day. Rama brings her a extra packet of food to take and Neerja reminds her mother that she wants a yellow sari for her birthday. A long-time admirer, Jaideep, waits to drive her to the airport. There is a comfort level between Neerja and Jaideep as they banter back and forth on the drive. They stop for a few minutes to glaze up at a billboard featuring Neerja as a bride. Besides working for Pan Am, Neerja also has a successful modeling career. At the airport, Jaideep hands Neerja a small envelope and asks her not to open it until her birthday, three days away. Neerja will be twenty-three.
This will be Neerja’s first flight as Head Purser, giving her authority over staff and the responsibility for passengers’ comfort and safety. Strapped into their seats for takeoff, Neerja and a fellow attendant joke about the contents of Jaideep’s envelope. Her friend encourages her to forget the past and be open to a deeper relationship with Jaideep. Neerja’s memory takes her back to a brief arranged marriage. Taken far from her beloved family, she found herself harassed over dowry and trapped in an abusive and lonely marriage. When she realized the marriage was doomed to fail, she summoned the courage to tell her father and move back in with her family. Facing this humiliating disappointment and rebuilding her life, she might have become skilled at setting her emotions aside and focusing on more important priorities.
Landing in Karachi is uneventful. Some passengers disembark and others board. Suddenly, gun shots are heard outside aircraft. Looking out, Neerja sees terrorists shooting their way onto the plane. She quickly shouts out for the doors to be closed, but it is too late. The terrorists have forced their way onto Pan Am #73. In the next seventeen hours, Neerja Bhanot will show the determination and courage that made her the youngest recipient of India’s highest peacetime award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra.
Sonam Kapoor shines as Neerja in the best role of her career. She portrays Neerja as an ordinary girl who has already seen set-backs life, but she is making the most of a second chance. At home, she is seen teasing her brothers, playing with her small dog, Nikki, dancing with neighborhood kids, and as an avid fan of Rajesh Khanna. At work, Neerja is hard-working and professional, as well as, compassionate and protective towards her passengers. Sonam’s Neerja is intelligent and quick-thinking, allowing her to keep her passengers one step ahead danger. Her soft voice and calm manner hide her fear, her determination and resolve when confronted by the terrorists. Sonam has done justice to Neerja’s legacy.
Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tiku, as Neerja’s parents, are warm and loving. They affectionately call her “Laddo”. Rama Bhanot worries for her daughter’s safety in the airline industry and wants Neerja to give up flying. Harish Bhanot regrets the choice he made in Neerja’s husband leading to a terrible marriage. Shabana and Yogendra are vulnerable as they learn their daughter’s plane as been hijacked. Eventually, hopefulness gives way to despair, and then numbing acceptance. Shekhar Ravjiani (half of the musical Vishal-Shekhar duo) is Jaideep has a very sweet and quiet affection for Neerja.
Director Ram Madhvani takes us into the hijacked plane on that fateful day. The film was shot in a constructed replica of the Pan Am plane. This allowed Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani to give the intimacy of actually being in the cabin while events unfold. Other techniques employed by Madhvani add to the genuine feeling of hijacking. The film was shot in real time, following the actual timeline of the hijacking. So if passengers boarded at two in the morning on September 5, 1986, Madhvani had the actors board at 2 in the morning. When the hijackers storm the plane and enter the cabin, it is filmed in one continuous shot. This created a sense of authentic and immediate confusion and panic among the passengers. The actors who played the terrorists did not mix with other actors on the set.
“Neerha” is an inspiring film and well worth your time. Not all heroes are strong and macho, sometimes they are fragile and polite.