Neerja would be a riveting picture even if it weren’t based on a true story. The fact that it is makes the movie all the more remarkable.
The story begins late in the evening of September 4, 1986, and the action switches between simultaneous events in Mumbai, India, and Karachi, Pakistan. In Mumbai, twenty-two-year-old flight attendant Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) returns home from work for a brief rest between shifts. She’s the life of the party and the pride of her parents: father Harish (Yogendra Tiku) and mother Rama (Shabana Azmi).
Meanwhile, in Karachi, a group of Palestinian terrorists prepare to hijack a plane and fly to Cyprus to free their jailed comrades.
Back in Mumbai, Neerja gets ready for her first opportunity to serve as head purser on Pam Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York, with stops in Karachi and Frankfurt. Worry-wort Rama wants Neerja to give up the job she loves to focus on her burgeoning modeling career. Bubbly Neerja says good-bye to her folks and her boyfriend, Jaideep (Shekar Ravjiani).
Introducing the terrorists at the same time as Neerja ratchets up the tension early in the film. As the smiling flight attendants greet the boarding passengers in Mumbai, our stomachs churn, knowing who’s waiting for them at their first layover.
The movie maintains its tension by introducing another parallel storyline once the plane lands in Karachi and the two initial storylines intersect: that of Neerja’s anxious parents, waiting for news in an age before cell phones and the internet. Harish waits in his office at the newspaper, but Rama is stuck at home, fretting with chores and trying to convince herself that everything will be all right. Even when the action cuts away from the danger on the plane, our respite is to watch parents wonder if their daughter is alive or dead. It’s heart-wrenching.
Despite her fears, Neerja epitomizes professionalism. She alerts the cabin crew to the hijacking, allowing the pilots to escape. With no one to fly them to Cyprus, the bewildered terrorists hold the passengers hostage, growing angrier as the hours drag on. Throughout, Neerja finds ways to subvert the terrorists murderous plans, keeping her passengers calm and her crew focused. She keeps repeating that she’s just doing her job, as though it’s easy to do with a gun pointed at her head.
Kapoor is amazing, portraying not just Neerja’s courage but her vulnerability as well. She’s not some hardened superhero, but a woman two days shy of her twenty-third birthday. Still, her moments of doubt are brief, her wits sharp. It’s a career performance by Kapoor.
Rama is interesting. She’s raised Neerja to be a dutiful wife, only to wind up with an independent, self-reliant daughter. It’s only through Neerja’s heroic actions during the hijacking that Rama finally comes to see her daughter for who she really is, opening her mind up to more progressive possibilities for other girls. Azmi’s performance is complex and sympathetic.
It’s only a shame that Neerja’s father doesn’t get as much screentime in the present-day scenes as her mother does. It’s his words — in flashbacks — that Neerja remembers when things are at their worst. She’s very much her father’s daughter — his “brave girl” — yet his feelings during the crisis are glossed over.
This is a really remarkable story, and Neerja does great justice to the woman who inspired it. The movie is easily accessible to international audiences, which is fitting Neerja’s commitment to protecting all of her passengers, regardless of the country on their passport.