Neerja - courage under fire

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What is courage? What is valor? There’s a misconception that courageous people are not afraid, or able to take risks without worrying about consequences. Courage is not acting without fear, courage is acting in spite of fear, but why would you act? If you have a commitment of a higher accord, courageous people act despite facing fear, and display valor in the face of danger. Some people find the commitment which prompts them to be courageous, some can’t. The story of Neerja is of such an extraordinary individual, who despite her youth, despite her fear, saw an opportunity and rose to the occasion.

Neerja, a Hindi film, is a thriller based on the real life incidents surrounding the hijack of Pan Am flight 73 in 1986, and how the brutal drama unfolded and the lives lost during this ordeal. To those of us who do not remember pre-9/11 days of air travel and security, it would seem unbelievable that a bunch of terrorists dressed as security guards could just drive up to an aircraft and board it with deadly weaponry, but it was all real. The story of the hijack is well known, so I won’t be giving up anything that’s not already in the public domain. In September 1986, 4 terrorists (allegedly with Libyan support) dressed as Pakistani security personnel, forced their way into a Pan Am flight that’s stopped in Karachi on its way to Frankfurt and JFK. They were hoping to hijack the flight to Cypress and get their fellow extremists released from jail, but due to the quick thinking of the head purser of the plane, Neerja Bhanot, the pilots were alerted and escaped through a hatch on the roof of the plane. This thwarted the terrorists’ plans to redirect the plane elsewhere, but about 360 passengers were taken hostage. The film then depicts what happened after that.

Usually, hijack stories like these try to create a microcosm of the society and add more drama than necessary, but this film refrains from all that, and tries to tell the story as we know it, and doesn’t make any assumptions, so don’t expect any high drama or sideline stories, in fact the entire screenplay feels very authentic, flawless and fitting to a biopic. In fact, the terrorists’ planning and their tactics or even their leadership is so amateurish, it’s hard to believe such imbeciles could really pull this off, but in retrospect, these type of stories probably led the modern terrorists to plan and act well, so ultimately the regular folks suffer. The terrorists display a shocking lack of knowledge of the plane design (they don’t even know where the cockpit is located on a Boeing 747-121, they don’t even know how to operate a radio on the plane or even know the language to speak to communicate with the Pakistani officials who are trying to negotiate with them. Despite all this, armed with AK 47s, grenades, explosive belts and mad rage against India and the west, they manage to hijack and kill 21 people by the end of the entire episode.

Sonam Kapoor was a revelation, I’ve seen her in other movies, but never thought she could act this well, she really donned the skin of Neerja and if she doesn’t receive a Best Actress award, I would be really, really surprised. Shabana Azmi, as usual does an amazing job, and in the final scene where she gives a speech about her daughter on her death anniversary brought tears to my eyes. The rest of the cast has done a good job considering the screen time they were given. Although we see some infighting and disarray among the terrorist cadre, there’s nothing significant about any one of them, and film thankfully avoids showing them as masterminds with tricks up their sleeves as some hijack movies do, you get what you see, and that’s it.

The screenplay and the direction beautifully juxtaposes the preparation of the terrorists with that of an ordinary individual (Neerja in this case) to catch the same flight. We also see glimpses of Neerja's failed marriage and her doting mother and father's obvious love and affection for her both pre hijacking and during the aftermath. Shabana Azmi who plays Rama Bhanot, the mother of Neerja tries to put on a brave front when the news of hijack reaches them, which makes you emphasize with her simultaneously breaking your heart. During final speech, Shabana Azmi asks us all "don't we tell our children to hide and be selfish when there's danger, and to protect themselves, but I am proud that my daughter hasn't listened to me and put her humanity and duty above all else". Neerja was awarded the Ashok Chakra highest honor of India (posthumously) and several bravery awards by the Pakistani govt and U.S. Govt., to think that she was just 23 years old and display such bravery and courage under fire makes you want to salute her. I am surprised that it has taken this long to bring this story to screen but better late than never. Last but not least, we should remember the passengers who turned against the terrorists when bullets and grenades started flying, saved themselves and their fellow men.

Neerja - a must watch.

Bhaskar Gandavabi
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