Saturday, February 20, 2016


The Braveheart

This was a risky film to make. The story took place thirty years ago, many of today’s audiences weren’t even born then and have no emotional connect to the character who was a hero of her time. Since Neerja is based on a true story, the tragic end is also known, so it all depends on how the director Ram Madhvani handles the film.

In those days, terrorism as we know it today, didn’t exist. The men who hijacked the Pan Am flight on which Neerja Bhanot was head purser, were Palestinians of the Abu Nidal group.

The film begins by establishing Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) as the life of the party and Rajesh Khanna fan. She has put an abusive marriage behind her, has a flourishing modeling career, loving parents (Shabana Azmi-Yogendra Tiku), a caring boyfriend (Shekhar Ravjiani) and at just twenty-three is a head purser with an American airline. She is a girl her mother prayed for after two sons, and is a cherished daughter. (A a bit of flag-waving there, but not out of place.)

The happy family picture is interspersed with the terrorists preparing for the hijack when the plane has a stopover in Karachi, which, keeping today’s security measure in mind, was ridiculously easy. Madhvani has set a most of the film on board the airplane, but has cut to flashbacks that show Neerja coping with her nasty husband and also getting her family’s affection and support.

When the terrorists strike—one of them hot-headed and trigger-happy (Jim Sarbh, effective)—the pilots flee and negotiators dither. With remarkable grit and a “military-like”  (as her mother says later) sense of duty, Neerja looks after the passengers, eventually helps rescue most of them and gives up her life to shield three children.

Sonam Kapoor’s performance is outstanding; she does not play Neerja as a fearless know-it-all, she is afraid, she feels helpless, but even with a gun to her head, she is the only one who functions, as one of the hijacker says. There is no over-the-top bravado and no suspense, but the film is engaging in spite of its flaws. The terrorists, for instance, are just shouting, glowering, gun-waving caricatures. The passenger are one faceless mass, when there was some scope for a bit of diversifying-- or the film is just about Neerja and the terrorists. And while admiring the realism in production design and handheld camerawork, one can’t help wondering, did the passengers just sit there for hours without a bathroom break?

The Rajesh Khanna line when Neeja’s body arrives in a coffin seems to hokey to be true.  But, not to nitpick, the film leaves a lump in the throat and a sense of pride that an Indian girl could stand up to armed militants.  Why did it take so long for Bollywood to pay tribute to Neerja Bhanot?


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