You've got to feel a little bit sorry for a film that's relying on Sonam Kapoor and Shabana Azmi to draw audiences to theatres. As crowd-pullers go, these two ladies aren't precisely on top of the pile. But for you all you know, if she's lucky, Neerja could do for Sonam Kapoor what Queen did for Kangana Ranaut.
Based on a real-life hijacking — four armed Palestinian men took Pan Am Flight 73 hostage on September 5, 1986, when the flight was in Karachi — Neerja is the first truly good film of 2016. It's the story of a woman whose name you probably didn't know of until publicity for this film started doing the rounds. Yet, she's been given bravery awards and commendations by the Indian, Pakistani and American governments. How often does that happen?
Neerja Bhanot (Kapoor) was seemingly an everyday 20-something who worked as an air hostess with Pan Am. Her parents raised her to be a good girl — keep your eyes lowered, dress decently, don't get into trouble. Then the flight she was on got hijacked and it turned out that Neerja was a hero under all that normalcy.
For 17 hours, while gun-toting terrorists patrolled the plane, Neerja protected passengers, took care of them and handled the bad guys. 20 people died in this incident and had it not been for Neerja's quick thinking and courage, this hijacking could have been infinitely worse.
Even if you've checked out Neerja's Wikipedia page and know how her story ends, the film will hold your attention. The script doesn't waste any time and with the very first shot, we're neck deep in the middle of a terrorist plot. Within the first 30 minutes, Neerja is on her way to the airport and the dynamic between her and her family is so tender, you almost wish the film had dragged its feet in the beginning.
Technically, Neerja's family has nothing to do but wait for news of their daughter once the plane is hijacked, but thanks to some clever scripting, they become a small but important part of the film (instead of being recognised as padding that will make the central story of the hijack more time-consuming).
Director Ram Madhvani and writer Saiwyn Qadras respect history and remain mostly true to it (unlike Airlift). The casting and production design of the film are superb. Neerja could easily have felt claustrophobic. All the action happens inside the plane and the monotony of those interiors are broken by occasional visits to the Bhanot home and to Neerja's father's office. All these spaces are designed to look realistic and cleverly have different colour palettes so that the film doesn't feel visually boring.
Every face in Neerja, right down to the terrorists, is credibly real and un-filmi. As the camera shows you row after row of passengers, it's easy to believe each of them have their own little stories, rather than being bored extras.
Kapoor is charming as Neerja and this is a career-best performance for the actress. She's ably supported by a cast of minor characters who do wonders for the film because they're so realistic in both their looks and their behaviour.
The least fleshed-out characters in Neerja are the terrorists, predictably. One of them, for instance, is established as a hothead, but suddenly turns into a psychopath. However, expecting a Bollywood film to accord a character arc to terrorists is expecting entirely too much.
True to tradition, Neerja loses a little of its steam after interval, but it continues to be tense until the climax. After that, it seems as though Qadras couldn't figure out how to end the film and so, Neerja makes some concerted attempts at pulling the heartstrings and stretching the film's runtime to two hours. Azmi has one monologue near the end that exists only to reduce the audience to tears and as expected, the veteran actress delivers.
Moving as the film is, one of the most poignant bits of Neerja are the end credits, which are accompanied by photos of Bhanot. She was a gorgeous, vivacious young woman and as you see all the happy, smiling photos of hers — some candid, some from modelling assignments — you can't help but feel awe and disbelief that there was so much grit and valour in her.
Go watch Neerja, and carry tissues with you.