As soon as we board a flight, we are told in a pretend warm tone to “enjoy the flight“. In a voice that is absolute voice of death. Very few people enjoy flights. They are discomfiting, vitals altering, the food is bad, you are practically tied to a chair for long hours and it gets claustrophobic. Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor), the head purser of Pan Am Flight 73 too speaks those words and it takes a poignant turn hearing it from her. We know what happened. We know what the 300 odd people in the flight are in for. And claustrophobia plays a huge part in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja. It may have to do with his illustrious career as an ad filmmaker but Neerja tells you how much Madhvani can accomplish with limited space. There are multiple things happening in every frame of Neerja, particularly those in the insides of an airplane. Sometimes Madhvani shows Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) in the foreground, grappling with the situation she’s thrust into and the terrorists in the background, and sometimes it is the opposite. It’s a flight that is stationary on the runway and it cannot get more claustrophobic – imagine a flight getting delayed after boarding. Here it is worse – the flight is hijacked soon after landing in Karachi. But Madhvani is relentless. He tracks movements through the aisles, across seats, from and into the galleys. The handheld camera is shaky and we see people in the background, the passengers, physically and mentally shaken.
When we first see Neerja, she quotes Rajesh Khanna’s most famous dialog from Anand – zindagi badi honi chahiye lambi nahi. A cinema loving teenager in the 70s, no wonder she is a Rajesh Khanna fangirl. It’s particularly charming how she has a Khanna quote for every situation (several from Anand, there is one from Safar) and this is even more incredibly moving when her mother Rama (Shabana Azmi, as reliable as ever) uses one towards the end. Madhvani opts for a cold opening that takes us through the preparation of the terrorists juxtaposed with the bundle of energy that Neerja is. We see how she can take over the reins in the society party that she single-handedly livens up and how much she loves her job. There is an overload of portending during these parts but it could be a function of the Neerja Bhanot exposure in the run up to this film. We know the facts. Yet we root for her and that’s Neerja’s greatest achievement. Madhvani wants us to know that Neerja’s actions in the flight are informed by her experience in an abusive marriage in the recent past. This works and how. It is also due to the way Madhvani weaves the familial ties between Neerja, her mother, and father played by Yogendra Tiku. Tiku played the role of a dispirited father to another titular character – in No One Killed Jessica. But Harish Bhanot is a different man. We wonder why he never joins his wife at home to give her courage, to comfort her but then we realize he is in the media (A job he loves. He wants to complete an article at 1 AM). A flight that originated from India has been hijacked and he has a duty to perform. Much like his daughter who’s taken after him.
Neerja owes a lot to its performances, from Azmi’s to Tiku’s to Sonam Kapoor. Sonam Kapoor as Neerja is a casting masterstroke and she comes up with her career best. Kapoor has always been lauded for her script and role choices but they seldom dovetailed into a memorable performance. But with Neerja she seems to have hit the sweet spot. Neerja was two days shy of her twenty third birthday and Kapoor summons everything in her to play a woman at crossroads – a girl who picks herself up from the lassitude of an unpleasant marriage to the battle hardened woman who plunges into the role of a savior. There is a particular scene that represents this exact moment when she bites into a chocolate, content not because she’s resigned to her fate but because she’s realized exactly what she needs to do. Above all there is Madhvani’s direction. His handling of the camera movements (cinematography by Mitesh Mirchandani), his handling of the disorder that gradually engulfs the terrorists, particularly Khalil played by Jim Sarbh. All this contributes to a climax that is total chaos betrayed by how organic it is. After Airlift, we have another director’s film this year and this one is even better.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)