“Your life should be big, not long,” declares Sonam Kapoor in the opening scenes of Neerja. You couldn’t have asked for a bigger cue than that in a drama that documents the life of a brave flight attendant who sacrifices her life when terrorists hijack a plane.
Most Indians know about the tragic end that awaited Neerja Bhanot as she boarded Pan Am flight 73 to serve her passengers, but credit has to be given to director Ram Madhvani for making us care about and not over dramatising it. He didn’t fall into the trap of orchestrating scenes just to extract empathy.
He introduces the viewers to Neerja swiftly — an ordinary young woman who enjoys her job, loves modelling and has a healthy relationship with her parents and friends.
Her middle-class parents, Rama and Harish, are played brilliantly by Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tikku, spot-on as a couple who dote on their daughter. In less than thirty minutes, the viewer is pulled into their world of simple joys. We begin to invest in the Bhanot household.
A major chunk of the credit has to go to Azmi, who gives a knock-out performance as Bhanot’s mother. She moves you to tears with her achingly raw performance. The scene in which she speaks about her valiant daughter and how she misses her every day after her death is a tear-jerker.
Kapoor isn’t far behind. She earnestly tries to recreate Bhanot’s fateful encounter with armed Palestinian terrorists. There’s no razzle-dazzle or swanky designer clothes to distract us from her performance and that’s a good thing. With hardly any sign of self-indulgence, Kapoor gives a real spin to the hijack ordeal. The scenes of her troubled past, in which she walks away from an abusive arranged marriage, are juxtaposed well with the hijack drama.
My favourite is the poignant scene in which she reads out a letter by her abusive husband. He’s criticising her ruthlessly, and Kapoor reads it with incredible vulnerability. She’s almost apologetic about it, and your heart goes out to her. She’s also brilliant in a scene in which she reads outs a letter written by her friend (played superbly by Shekhar Ravjiani) who proposes to her.
However, I wish the terrorists, their psyche and their cause were elaborated upon, too. The violent perpetrators come across as a bunch of dimwits who had a half-baked plan about holding hostages in exchange for their jailed cohorts. There are moments in the second half where the plot seems to drag. But the climax is powerful and makes up for that blip. Watch this if you are looking for an engaging film about love, extraordinary bravery and honour. But keep the tissues near by. You will need them.
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tikku
Stars: 4 out of 5