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5 reasons to watch Neerja

The Sonam Kapoor-starrer does full justice to a fantastic real-life story

By Deepa Menon  February 19th, 2016

If you’re anything like me, you’ve regarded the biopic of Neerja Bhanot with trepidation. The extraordinary story of the 23-year-old Pan Am purser who risked her life to save the passengers on-board a hijacked flight deserved to be told with sincerity, not star-power. Sonam Kapoor, fresh from the success of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, seemed particularly ill-suited to take on this role. She hasn’t proved her acting chops yet and the fear that Neerja would turn out to be another underwhelming, filmi-fied biopic seemed warranted. Well, we’ve never been happier to be proved wrong.

Here are just five reasons to watch this powerful film now.

1. A phenomenal story

If you aren’t familiar with the facts of the case, here they are: In 1986, a Pan Am flight from Mumbai to New York, via Karachi, was captured by terrorists while it was still in Pakistan. The terrorists, part of Palestinian group Abu Nidal, planned to re-route the plane to Cyprus, where they would demand the release of their comrades from jail. But they’re unable to take off, leading to a 17-hour standoff between the hijackers and the Pakistani authorities. Cornered and increasingly panicked, the terrorists tighten their hold on their only trump card, ie the 379 passengers and staff on board. Surrounded by a terrified crew and hysterical passengers, Bhanot took charge. Her presence of mind ensured the pilots escaped, some measure of calm prevailed in the craft and, crucially, many innocent lives were saved. Her final act, after rescue finally arrived, was to throw herself in the path of bullets to save three children. She was awarded India’s highest peacetime military honour for valour, the Ashok Chakra, posthumously.

Director Ram Madhvani (maker of the gripping 2002 Boman Irani film, Let’s Talk) layers this taut stressful narrative with emotion and even some romance. Through flashbacks, he sketches the story of Bhanot, still recovering from an abusive marriage and learning to trust someone new. He also gives you a glimpse into the tightly wound inner life of a terrorist, a Molotov cocktail of ideology, rage and insanity that makes the killing of innocents acceptable.


2. Jim Sarbh, the terrorist 

Jim Sarbh

Theatre actor Sarbh plays the most volatile of the hijackers, quick to anger and quicker to shoot. He manages to convey an air of such unhinged menace that soon you start to wince every time he’s on screen. It’s a fantastic debut and it’ll be exciting to see what this chameleonic talent does next.


3. Everyone else in the film


The cast is fairly bristling with talent. Leading the pack is Shabana Azmi, who plays Bhanot’s mother. Azmi is reliably great as she conveys the waiting mother’s brittle bravery. Her monologue at the end, a speech at her daughter’s first memorial, finely balances pride, grief and regret. Bhanot’s father, played by Yogendra Tiku, is a quieter but no less eloquent presence. Sonam Kapoor brings effervescence to her character as the lead, but plays it with a restraint we’ve never seen from her before.


4. The music by Vishal Khurana

Somehow the soundtrack seeps into the quiet spaces between moments, both setting the mood and adding a new timbre to the action. You wouldn’t think music would have much room to manoeuvre in such a tightly packed story, but it does and beautifully.


5. Neerja Bhanot

Neerja Bhanot 1963 1986

Perhaps the film’s biggest triumph is that it gives you a real sense of Neerja Bhanot, an ordinary girl who metamorphosed into a hero because the situation demanded it. Bhanot was the baby of her family, struggling to recover her self-esteem after a failed marriage, and so anxious not to disappoint her parents. But a gun to her head turned this mild person into a crafty, fearless rebel. Neerja will make you wonder who you might turn into in the moment of truth.