Award for Neerja: A finely made movie on an incredible person

Director Ram Madhvani succeeded in creating a very convincing environment of confusion and fear inside a hijacked plane; and Sonam Kapoor pulled off the character of Neerja brilliantly

Photo by Pramod Thakur/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Pramod Thakur/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Pragati Saxena

Neerja has won the national award for the best Hindi feature film. Sonam Kapoor received special mention by the jury for playing the role of young Neerja Bhanot who successfully saved many passengers from the ill-fated Pan American flight 73 before being fatally injured.

Kudos are pouring in on social media for Sonam Kapoor and the entire team of the feature film, especially for director Ram Madhvani.

Of late, Hindi film makers have been trying to make movies on real life events and characters. It demands a great deal of research and understanding of characters and incidents. At times, the research is faulty such as in Air Lift, or the characters look larger than life like in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai. The tone is too loud on occasions, like in Gulaab Gang. But Neerja is an example of an almost balanced approach and nearly perfect execution – barring a misfit song and loud histrionics of the militants.

What surprised many was Sonam Kapoor’s performance, who is generally known for her light-hearted roles. The credit for her balanced and intense performance does go to director Ram Madhvani.

Prior to Neerja, Madhvani made his debut with Let’s talk, a lesser known movie. In Neerja, he subtly portrays the strong bond between Neerja and her mother – played by Shabana Azmi.

Appreciating the movie, film critic Shubhra Gupta wrote in The Indian Express: “The atmosphere of dread and violence is created well, for the most part. We see the hijackers brutally put down any hint of resistance. We see the terrified passengers cowering in their seats. We see the crew being cowed into submission, being jabbed repeatedly by AK 47s. And we see the exact moment when Neerja draws upon her memories of being defeated in a past life, and reaching out for steely resilience: … Kapoor makes us believe she is, was, Neerja.”

What’s the storyline?

It gives goosebumps to revisit the unfortunate incident in 1986 when four terrorists from a Palestinian militant group Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) took control of Boeing 747 firing shots in the air. The Pan Am flight 73 was on a stopover in Karachi from Mumbai and was scheduled to go New York via Frankfurt. There were 14 flight attendants on board.

It was one of the bloodiest hijackings ever on the subcontinent. It left 23 passengers dead and 130 seriously injured. Though the pilots quietly evacuated the plane the moment they learnt something was wrong, which may be viewed as an act of cowardice, the terrorists also couldn’t fly the plane without anyone in the cockpit.

Passengers and flight attendants were stuck in the plane for almost the entire day on September 5, 1986. The power supply finally exhausted and the lights went out. It was then that the attendants helped passengers exit the plane in complete confusion with the terrorists shooting blindly. And after the crew helped passengers exit the plane, they bravely went back in the plane to look for survivors and that is when one of the flight attendants saw Neerja shot in the hip, bleeding but conscious. Her colleagues took her to hospital but she eventually succumbed to her wounds waiting for treatment in a chaotic environment.

The 23-year-old, Neerja Bhanot, was honoured with a bravery award posthumously by both India and Pakistan.

Making a film on this incident, which reflects not only a young woman’s bravery but also conveys the war-like chaos charged with emotions, couldn’t have been easy. The fact that Ram Madhvani could do it successfully and Sonam could pull it off, is, indeed, deserving of an award.

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