Film review: Neerja is an extraordinary tale of sacrifice without theatrics

The film is about Neerja Bhanot, the hero of hijacked Pan Am Flight 73, who sacrificed her life to save hundreds of passengers on board.

In the film Neerja, Sonam Kapoor plays the role of a purser with Pan Am Flight 73. Courtesy Fox Star India
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Director: Ram Madhvani

Starring: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Jim Sarbh

Four stars

Bollywood biopics can be tedious affairs. Not for lack of interesting things to say about their subjects, but because of the tendency to bludgeon the heartstrings with the emotional tropes that filmmakers often resort to in an attempt to force the viewer to empathise.

Simply for avoiding this, director Ram Madhvani's Neerja scores major points.

The film tells the story of Neerja Bhanot (played by Sonam Kapoor), the 22-year-old head purser of Pan Am Flight 73 who saved the lives of hundreds of passengers on board with her calm quick-thinking when the flight was hijacked by terrorists from the Abu Nidal Organisation at Karachi airport in September 1986.

Bhanot was awarded India’s highest civilian bravery award, the Ashoka Chakra, along with similar awards from Pakistan and the United States.

He story is an impressive one that deserves to be told and Madhvani and team have taken care to tell it like it was, without theatrics or the use of soppy sentimentality. There are emotional moments, of course, but these never seem forced.

Bhanot’s achingly young age hits you like a tonne of bricks in a quiet moment, as she yearns for her own mother while consoling terrified children on the plane. Her mother Rama’s (Shabana Azmi) desperation is also moving as she tries to force herself to behave normally, willing fate to keep her daughter safe.

At no point do we see Bhanot, or anyone else, acting the hero. Instead, we see her as an ordinary person struggling with panic while trying to keep calm, drawing on every life lesson to function rationally in a horrible situation.

In flashbacks we see she was trapped in an abusive marriage but was unable to do much about it, reinforcing the fact that she was not very different or special until that fateful day when she stepped up and made a huge difference to the lives of many.

Kapoor really rises to the challenge offered by the role and proves that she has much more to offer as an actress than a pretty face with a great fashion sense.

However, while many of the actors deserve credit, the movie is ultimately much more than the sum of its parts.

Theatre actor Jim Sarbh is chilling as a maniacal terrorist, while Azmi is exceptional as Bhanot’s middle-class mother.

Her flawless timing and delivery prevents the film’s closing monologue from turning into a cliched sob-fest. Instead, it comes across as the all-too- real reflections of a grief-stricken mother, which is exactly what it is meant to be.

Yogendra Tiku, as Bhanot’s father Harish, is equally good, though more restrained.

Neerja is a great story told well. Mitesh Mirchandani's jerky camerawork does a great job of using the claustrophobic confines of the aircraft to showcase the oppressiveness of the situation and the terror of the hostages.

But more beautifully, it is not only the story that the viewer relates to, but the person at the heart of it. Neerja’s struggles are so much like our own – a fear of failure, heartbreak, trying to do what is right – and they make us wonder whether we would have been able to do what she did. Are there extraordinary people lurking beneath our ordinary exteriors too?