Throwing you straight into a slice of Indian life and not letting you go until the credits roll, Neerja is a punchy, vivid and thrilling tale of a terrorism attempt and a woman who has, understandably, gone down in history.
Based on the real-life story of Neerja Bhanot, played by Sonam Kapoor, the film begins at a riotous family party and quickly proceeds to where the bulk of the action takes place: a Pan Am plane, en route to Cyprus via Karachi. What transpires is the incredible, true events of what happened on September 5, 1986, when terrorists from the Abu Nidal Organisation hijacked the flight in an attempt to free their associates from prison in Cyprus.
I’ve found action thriller films such as this to be entertaining but limited, rife with hero worshipping and often sporting two dimensional characters marching through a predictable plot.
At first, I thought this would be the same. Instead, I was enraptured. The film held me hostage for its entirety, and unlike the unfortunate passengers of Pan Am Flight 73, I wasn't captive of the terrorists so much as the formidable character that is Neerja.
She and the other characters weren’t governed by the genre, they dominated it, the film didn’t fall back on tropes, it redefined them. All of the characters - from those that made me want to proposition them to be best friends to those that made my skin crawl - were so real.
Some of my favourite scenes were when two moments played out in parallel, building out the story and inviting you into intimate spaces. Like when Neerja gets ready for her day while the terrorists ready for their attack - she lays out her uniform, the terrorists lay out their bullets and bombs. Or when a terrorist bangs on the door of the plane bathroom and threatens to shoot while Neerja washes blood from her face, and then flashes back to Neerja’s ex-husband banging on the bathroom door demanding she obey while she washes her face with shaking hands.
One of the many moments we see Neerja’s strength is when she comforts three unaccompanied minors on the plane amidst the chaos of the terrorism attack, alongside a flashback of her mother cradling her as she cried and said she couldn't go back, doesn’t want to ‘die before she's dead’.
It was the tiny moments that were like nuggets of gold for me. Those simple seconds when Neerja rolled over and draped herself over her mother, not wanting to get out of bed, or when the camera lingered on one mad terrorist as he sat slumped in an airplane seat, panting, eyes bulging. And then when Neerja’s mother sat with her two sons, waiting for news, the look on her face steely and unmovable only to instantly soften when her son placed his hand in hers.
Neerja carried the entire film unflinchingly, but her mother was, to me, the unexpected force to be reckoned with. This actress, Shabana Azmi, has mastered the art of subtlety, to the point that even her most minute facial expressions had me welling up. In one of the final scenes of the movie she makes a speech a year after the hijack, and each careful sentence carried the weight of experience stayed with me long after the film ended.
Because of the volatile nature of the terrorists and their escalating fury, the pressure of the film continues to mount until breaking point. In the first two minutes I got the sense that the film was storming toward the inevitable, and there was nothing to do but buckle in. And it proved to be thrilling in every sense - fear and love, strength and weakness, all laid bare.
By the time Neerja’s mother came to make her speech, I was well and truly invested in the story and the lives of these people, and utterly shaken up - in a good way.
Note: You can watch Neerja in Rialto cinemas from May 19 onwards.