8 March 2016 | dave-mcclain
"Neerja" the movie should be an example to Hollywood and Neerja the person should be an example to us all.
Hollywood filmmakers could learn a few things from filmmakers in India when it comes to making a movie about a true story. The drama "Neerja" (NR, 2:02), about one of India's national heroes, is a prime example of that. This story needed no embellishments, and screenwriters Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla along with Ram Madhvani, directing only his second feature film, clearly understand that. No typical Hollywood phrases like "inspired by a true story" or "based on true events" were needed. These Indian filmmakers respected history enough to tell this story as it actually happened, accurate in the film's major plot points and its relatively minor details. Hollywood, THIS is how you tell a true story.
Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) is a 22-year-old flight attendant, about to celebrate her 23rd birthday. She's a happy and vibrant young woman, as we see during a birthday party early in the film. We also notice how beautiful Neerja is. She was a model, but her emotionally abusive husband pressured her to quit so she could spend more time and energy tending to his needs. Eventually, Neerja made the socially difficult decision to get a divorce. She then went to work for Pan Am Airlines. Neerja's mother, Rama (Shabana Azmi) asks her to leave the airline and go back to modeling. "I like my job," is Neerja's reply. So, in the early morning hours of September 5, 1986, Neerja drags herself out of bed and gets ready to go work a flight from Mumbai to New York, by way of Karachi, Pakistan and Frankfurt, Germany. Her boyfriend, Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani) shows up at her parents' house to drive Neerja to the airport. He hands her an early birthday gift and makes her promise not to open it until her birthday, two days later.
This is a big day for Neerja. It's her first time being a lead flight attendant, a promotion which turns out to be very fortunate for the passengers and crew of Pan Am Flight 73. When the plane lands in Karachi to pick up more passengers for the next leg of its scheduled flight, four of those passengers turn out to be terrorists with the Abu Nidal Organization. As they begin to take control of the plane (which is still on the ground), Neerja quickly warns the flight crew, who at first hesitate, but then follow protocol and abandon the cockpit so they can't be forced to fly the plane. The hijackers demand that new pilots be sent to the plane, but are forced into lengthy negotiations with Pakistani authorities. Throughout the ordeal, Neerja helps her fellow flight attendants keep calm and leads them in taking care of the passengers as well as possible. As the standoff between the terrorists and airport officials drags on, we periodically see short flashbacks of Neerja's past, showing us who she is as a person, how she got to this point in her life and why she's able to remain strong in such extraordinary circumstances. On the plane, we see Neerja continually insist on being the one to deal with the terrorists personally. In doing so, she puts her own life at risk – increasingly so when she secretly works against them and as the terrorists become more and more agitated until this true story reaches its dramatic and shocking conclusion.
From an American perspective, "Neerja" is a combination of 2006's "United 93" and 2013's "Captain Phillips", but it's even more remarkable when you realize that what Neerja accomplished was through her own singular strength of character and force of will and with the help of only a handful of similarly brave flight attendants. The first few scenes of the film and the flashbacks that we see during the hijacking are well-placed and, more importantly, provide excellent character development which makes the audience feel that they are really starting to get to know Neerja as a person. The acting is excellent and the film is well-paced and not exploitive in any way. Neerja isn't shown as a super woman – just a virtuous and determined one. The hijackers aren't being shown in order to make any political point – only because they were violent men who did terrible things. The ending isn't there to make the film overly emotional – just true and factual. (Hollywood filmmakers, are you paying attention?) The great thing about this film for westerners is, for most of us, the story is fresh and new. Yes, the movie is in Hindi with English subtitles, but English-speaking Movie Fans who are open-minded enough to give a "foreign film" a shot will be richly rewarded. More than "just" a story about a famous young Indian woman, this story involves Americans in a significant way, and, even if it didn't, Neerja's heroism knows no nationality. Her actions represented humanity at its finest and should be a lesson to all of us. I'm very thankful that the Indian filmmakers responsible for this movie had the talent and the integrity to tell the story so well and so truthfully. Neerja deserves no less and audiences need no more. "A+"