The latest in Bollywood’s attempts at retelling real-life stories, Ram Madhvani‘s “Neerja” is a shining example of what happens when the film-maker respects his source material and doesn’t introduce unnecessary melodrama.
Neerja, a biopic, encapsulates the life of Neerja Bhanot, head purser, Pan Am flight 73, which was hijacked in Karachi in September 1986 where she laid down her life heroically, trying to save the passengers.
Set inside Pan Am Flight 73 and Bombay’s Navjeevan Society, this is a well made, crisp film that takes the audience through Neerja’s short life of 23 years. And as Neerja, a die-hard Rajesh Khanna fan used to say, “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin (Life should be grand, not long)”. She lived her life to the fullest and brought joy to those whose lives she touched, till the very end.
Director Ram Madhvani adroitly showcases Neerja’s life and the actual incident of the plane getting hijacked in a brilliant narrative. He gives viewers a peak into her life with her family, her strong bond with her mother, her attachment to her father, the lessons she learnt from them and her traumatic marriage, in a smooth flowing plot, the focus of which never wavers.
The hijacking incident and the manner in which Neerja attends to the passengers, rescues them with single-minded devotion and confidence, remains the centre stage of the film. Yet, we get glimpses of her life, which tell us the kind of person she was.
Sonam Kapoor may seem a poor choice to play Bhanot, but she grows into the role. Towards the end, you cannot help but be moved by her performance. She is at once stoic, child-like and scared. This is an author-backed role that she bites her teeth into. Whether it is playfully mouthing the dialogues of her favourite superstar Rajesh Khanna, chiding her mother for her unnecessary concern, or staring adversity in the face as a composed flight purser, she makes it all look effortless as an actor.
But it is Shabana Azmi as Rama Bhanot, Neerja’s spirited and loving mother, who steals your heart with a natural and heart-rending performance. She is every inch Neerja’s mother whether it is waking her up lovingly before a flight or promising her a yellow salwar kameez for her birthday. The last scene where she gives an emotional speech on the first death anniversary of Neerja, is easily one of the highlights of the film.
Shekhar Ravijani, of the Vishal-Shekhar music director duo, makes his debut as an actor and plays Neerja’s love interest, Jaideep, who dotes on her. Unfortunately the character does not offer him much scope by way of performance.
The actors playing the hijackers too are competent and display their anger, frustration, nervousness and unleashing of terror, in a convincing manner. The rest of the actors too are natural, not indulging in unnecessary histrionics.
Nothing in the film appears staged or artificial. It is truly a slice of Neerja’s life.
The only aberration in this otherwise well told engaging tale, is the jerky camera movement and poor lighting, which barely allows you to see the face of the actors with clarity, giving it the feel of a film with compromised production values.
The music has been skilfully used to create the right mood in certain scenes and does not seem out of place.
Overall, Neerja is bound to engage you emotionally owing to the nature of its subject and its adept treatment.