Monday, February 22, 2016

11. Neerja

It is indeed quite a task to make a film based on real-life incidents since everyone knows what had happened and there is hardly any scope for surprise. Despite that, a well-constructed dramatic retelling of a real event does pack a punch and can be a rich source of interesting films - especially when stuck in the rut of flipping cars and rotating pelvises.

Some random thoughts about Neerja:

The hijackers - owing allegiance to Palestine - were not sentenced to death in trial in Pakistan. All four of them had survived the hijack and despite having killed some twenty passengers (which included Americans), they were sentenced to life imprisonment. Quite amazingly, some of them escaped during a jailbreak in 2008. Yes, four of them are somewhere out there and may have even watched the film.

I was a little puzzled about why Pakistan banned the film. The Pakistan authorities - airport security, Army commandos etc - have been shown in neutral to positive light. It was they who negotiated with the hijackers (stretching it to long hours) and eventually stormed the plane, managing to rescue a fairly large proportion of the passengers.

Thanks to the film, Neerja Bhanot - quite a popular model of her times - is all over the internet once again. She had done ads for quite a few top brands and it is a trip down nostalgia lane to see them once again. A handy compilation is available here.
Interesting to note that she - despite being in her early twenties - routinely played housewives and in one case, the mother of a (what seemed like) ten-year old boy. And ironically, the ad features the boy hoping to be a pilot.

Apart from her ads, a friend reminded me of a story in The Telegraph's Sunday magazine where Neerja's family had revealed that they had managed to establish contact with her 'spirit'. Neerja communicated by writing her messages through her mother holding a pen and scrawling on sheets of paper. I now remember this creating quite a stir because Neerja's messages apparently contained details of the hijack that could have only been known to her while the sceptics questioned her mother's ability to withstand grief of such magnitude.

As @GabbbarSingh said on Twitter, "Neerja is Sonam Kapoor's Guru" alluding to Abhishek Bachchan's landmark film that rose above his usual mediocre performance at the box office and review columns. But Sonam's performance - while very good - certainly doesn't engulf you like Abhishek's did. She is good, aided by having to play an extraordinary character, but I don't see her getting too many awards for it.

Rajesh Khanna has an unseen yet pervasive presence throughout the film as he is supposed to be Neerja Bhanot's favourite film star and she uses his iconic lines at every possible opportunity. I wondered if a girl in her early twenties in the 1980s would be such a huge fan of Kaka, clearly past his prime then. Logically, no but then Hindi cinema fandom hardly operates on logic.

Shabana Azmi - as Neerja's mother, Rama Bhanot - is magnificent. She is in the background for most part of the film but her fine acting qualities are on display everywhere. She is the typical worried Punjabi mother, seemingly confident of and yet scared for her daughter. Her speech in the final scenes is amazing, delivering a message of women's empowerment in very real terms. And it drives you to tears.
(Yogendra Tikku as Neerja's father is good too and he seems to have made his own the niche character of a strong daughter's father. He was very good in Queen as well.)

Overall, a fine mix of edge-of-the-seat thrills and good old-fashioned desi emotions.