There is no question Neerja will leave you with a lump the size of a golf-ball in your throat. Based on the tragic true story of 23-year-old airhostess Neerja Bhanot, who lost her life helping passengers escape from Palestinian terrorists on a hijacked Pan Am flight in 1986, this is a respectful tribute that pushes all the right buttons.
Working from a script by Saiwyn Quadras, director Ram Madhvani wastes little time in setting up the drama. In a middle-class residential colony in Mumbai, we’re introduced to Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) as she spends time with her doting family hours before she must leave for her flight. These scenes are intercut with the terrorists in Karachi obtaining and readying their ammunition as they prepare to storm the plane.
Even when the action moves on board the doomed Flight 73, the filmmakers keep us invested in Neerja’s life with her family. We learn, through flashbacks, how her parents (Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tikku) supported her through a bad marriage. We’ve already seen, how they approve, almost wordlessly, of a new partner (Shekhar Ravjiani) who evidently makes her happy. We witness the anxiety that her job causes them, and their sheer helplessness on learning that her flight has been hijacked.
Madhvani creates a palpable sense of fear and foreboding in the scenes in which the armed terrorists take charge of the flight, often clashing among themselves. Using jerky handheld camerawork to establish urgency and claustrophobia in the narrow cabin, the filmmakers give us harrowing moments of tension and violence. Meanwhile, Neerja, summoning the strength that her father repeatedly pressed her to draw on, finds it within herself to stand up to the oppressors.
Sonam Kapoor, her sing-song delivery only reiterating the character’s young age, throws herself into the part, and aside from a few weak instances, successfully conveys Neerja’s inner journey from fear to finding courage under fire.
Expect to be fully moist-eyed in the scene following Neerja’s death, when her family receives the coffin bearing her corpse. Commendably Madhvani keeps it mostly silent, allowing the actors’ performances and the moment itself to shatter your heart.
Yogendra Tikku is perfectly cast in the role of Neerja’s father, effectively offering a glimpse into the welled-up emotions of a concerned parent. Shabana Azmi owns practically every scene she’s in, adding little realistic touches to make the character her own. Even in the film’s overlong climatic speech scene, which borders on the mawkish, she gnarls at your insides as she speaks about losing her daughter.
There are a few things, however, that don’t work. A badly placed song in the second half (even if only in the background) doesn’t serve well. Also you wish the film were tighter and crisper, particularly in the second half. The feeling that you’re being manipulated – rather than feeling genuinely invested in what’s going on – pops up a few times too. But these are minor complaints in what is evidently a well-intentioned, heartfelt film that pays tribute to a real hero.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Neerja. Don’t forget to carry a handkerchief; you’re going to need one.