In 2002, a film called Let’s Talk released in theatres and, in all likelihood, exited them soon after. Directed by a first-timer called Ram Madhvani, it was a marvellously unsettling, unrelenting chamber piece. This week, Madhvani is back with his second film, Neerja. Unlike Let’s Talk, he has a substantial budget this time, and a star to help open the film. What remains the same, though, is his capacity to sustain tension over the length of a film.
On 5 September 1986, a 22-year-old former model from Mumbai named Neerja Bhanot was making her first flight as purser on Pan Am 73. At Karachi airport, the plane was stormed by four Libyan terrorists. Bhanot, the senior-most cabin crew member, managed to get a message through to the cockpit, which allowed the pilots to escape. Later, she had the presence of mind not to hand over any American passports, an action which prevented the terrorists from using the US citizens on board as bargaining chips. Finally, in the chaos that ensued when the military stormed the plane, she opened the emergency exit and got passengers to deplane. She was killed in the process, but 359 of the 379 on that plane survived because of her. In 1987, she was given a posthumous Ashok Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award.
The film takes its time getting Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) on to the plane, alternating scenes of her and her close-knit family with ones of the terrorists preparing for their mission. This is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ cross-cutting at the start of Captain Phillips, but Madhvani wrings more emotion out of it by making Neerja’s parents (played beautifully by Yogendra Tiku and Shabana Azmi) compelling characters in their own right. We return to them at regular intervals, and their conviction that their daughter will return home safe becomes as moving as Bhanot’s courage under duress.
The film suggests an unusual emotional impetus for Bhanot’s bravery by linking, through a recurring flashback, her passivity in a recently ended abusive relationship to her decisiveness during the hijacking. It is a reminder that courage can spring unbidden, much like the crises that prompt it. Kapoor, in a break from her usual achingly hip persona, presents Bhanot as a believable mixture of quick thinking and barely suppressed panic. The roving camera seems to mirror her nervousness, flitting around, capturing little details on the corners of the frame (cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani deserves credit for making such dynamic use of an enclosed space).
If there’s one quibble I had with Neerja—apart from a couple of moments of sentimental overreach, like the song sequence which cross-cuts between Azmi in her home and mothers on the plane comforting their children—it’s in the way it presents the hijackers. It might be asking too much in a film about Bhanot to make her killers fleshed-out characters, but Neerja might have gained in depth had it at least revealed a little about the terrorists’ motivations and aims (Captain Phillips, for instance, at least gives us a glimpse of the pirates’ lives). Without context, the hijackers are just another bunch of crazed, bearded, armed men shouting in Arabic—a stereotype Indian cinema seems to fall back on as readily as Hollywood.
This review appeared in Mint.