There’s something totally shattering about sending your happy, healthy child away and having to receive her or him back home in a coffin. A moment that can melt the hardest of hearts, particularly if it gets emotionally (though also a wee bit affectedly) essayed by an actor like Shabana Azmi. Neerja might be about flight attendant late Neerja Bhanot, how she fought for the lives of the passengers on board her Pan Am Flight 73 when it was hijacked on ground in Karachi by four armed Palestinians of the Abu Nidal group but the strongest cinematic bits in the film are those involving Neerja’s family. Don’t they say that it’s not an individual death that matters as much as its repercussions on those left behind? So too in the film. It’s not just the tragedy so much as its impact on the Bhanots that strikes a huge chord.
Neerja is ultimately a family’s film. There is their love and affection and easy, carefree ways and an overwhelming love for Rajesh Khanna, complete with all the quotidian touches. All of which is put forth authentically though also very sparingly. Then there is an admirable sense of self respect in how the parents steer Neerja through a bad marriage and stand by her. And, of course, their anxieties, frustrations, when they are a long distance away from Karachi with no information on how their daughter is doing in the hijacked plane. Yogendra Tiku (trying to unsuccessfully comfort his wife on phone) and Shabana Azmi keep it low key and real in conveying the helplessness and pain. But the fag end of the affecting film lets it down when the emotional strength and equilibrium get compromised. Speeches, claps, salutes and “Pushpa I hate tears” turn it into a soppy tissue-box weepie. Overflowing tearducts of the audience may get the moolah in as well as the acclaim but render it a lesser film than it could have been.
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Ram Madhvani
Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku
The beginning, with its one-the-move, jerky camera lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings but can also leave some of viewers like yours truly struck with motion sickness. In the parallel unfolding narratives Madhvani establishes the context — Neerja and her happy family in Navjeevan Society and the evil terrorists in Tariq Road in Karachi and Lyari. The bursting of balloons in the party on the one hand and the bombs on the other side becomes too pat a correspondence. Even within the plane Madhvani keeps the parallel tracks going though with Neerja’s marital abuse in focus; a terrorism of another kind.
Madhvani tries to recreate the situation inside the plane with as much detailing as possible but not all in his huge caste of extras rise up to the challenge. The pilots are cringingly hammy as are some of the passengers on board. The terrorists are as much flat, cardboard cutouts, swinging between madness and ineffectuality. Even Sonam as Neerja felt more Sonam to me than Neerja. Mere Sapno Ki Rani song scene didn’t pack in the wallop it was meant to. But the larger emotional swell and sentiment of the film makes one overlook things. You don’t even realise that it’s the selflessness and courage of real characters you actually end up applauding than the actors playing them. Go for it if you are in the mood for a good cry.