After the movie ‘Airlift’ India remembers one more hero/heroine on whom a film ought to have been made 30 years ago. But maybe the Indian film industry had not come of age at that time. Or maybe the Indian people had not developed the maturity to cherish our heroes at that time. Be as it may, better late than never.
So this time the story is of Neerja Bhanot, an air hostess who saved hundreds of people on a Pan Am aircraft which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal group at Karachi in Pakistan after flying there from Bombay.
So the story picks up in Bombay where Neerja was the light of the life of her parents and her brothers; and she was the heart and soul of every small event that was happening in the neighbourhood; she had the personality and the charm that made her so.
But beneath her smile there was a past in which there was an abusive husband, whom she had divorced, who had given her tears which she left hidden behind her smiles; indeed it was her job as air hostess to keep smiling all the time and look happy or maybe what made her happy was the new admirer in her life.
Air hostesses are supposed to have glamorous lives, but I didn’t see any glamour in her life in the movie other than her modelling assignments. Yes , she was a model who had modelled for TV ads and street hoardings but no smoking or drinking or discos or late night parties for her. Her father was the one who encouraged her to be independent, but that independence was only by the standards of the times. India even in a city like Bombay was a backward socialist country.
If there was anything in which her father encouraged her the most, it was to never tolerate injustice. It had helped her survive the trauma of her bad marriage. And it was to prove mighty useful in the drama that was to unfold.
So the movie picks off with the parallel tracks of the hijackers preparing for the mission and Neerja preparing for the flight. Among other things it entails praying to their respective Gods. And the two tracks are about to meet.
For as Neerja’s Pan Am flight lands in Karachi, the hijackers come into action as they hijack the plane and terrify everyone . The tense and terrified atmosphere in the plane and the fear and uncertainty have been portrayed all too well. Neerja immediately proves her mettle by giving the signal for the pilots to escape by using an overboard hatch , thus preventing the plane from flying to Cyprus. And she does not allow the hijackers to know that there is a radio operator on board, thus preventing them from contacting the airport authorities by radio. Above all, she helps hide the passports of the Americans on board and thus prevents the hijackers from identifying them and using the threat of massacring them release their comrades from jail.
A tense stand off of 17 hours occurs between them and the airport authorities, and every moment is fraught with tension. The differing personalities of the hijackers are well shown. One of them is calm and cool and the other is hasty and quick to anger. The third is a coward. The angry man beats the coward for his cowardice, and this leads to mayhem. Ultimately the terrorists begin to lose control over themselves out of sheer frustration. As they begin to kill people Neerja opens the doors and lets loose an escape chute to help slide the passengers out, saving most of them. But as she goes to shield some children, she has to pay the ultimate price. She could have saved herself by running away first but she sacrificed herself; heroine indeed.
The last speech by her mother (played by Shabana Azmi) brought me close to tears and definitely increased the emotional quotient of the movie. Acting by everyone is good as expected. And the movie may give a boost to heroine Sonam Kapoor’s flagging career.
Neerja won many awards from America, India and Pakistan posthumously. Today there is an awards instituted by Pan Am airlines in her name, which is given for bravery. Now the question is, how many awards will this movie win?