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Movie Review: Neerja

20 Feb 2016, 15:35

Shilpa Jamkhandikar

The latest in Bollywood’s attempts at retelling real-life stories, Ram Madhvani‘s ‘Neerja’ is a shining example of what happens when the film-maker respects his source material and doesn’t introduce unnecessary melodrama.

Madhvani chronicles the 1986 hijacking of a Pan Am flight in Karachi, and tells the story from the point of view of Neerja Bhanot, a senior flight purser who saved hundreds of lives and died while saving passengers from bullets.

Madhvani is an ad film-maker and ‘Neerja’ is his second full-length feature in 13 years, but he handles it with the deftness of a pro. Along with screenwriter Saiwyn Quadras (who also wrote ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, which could be a manual on how not to make a biopic), Madhvani weaves an intimate tale about a waif-like young woman who finds the courage to stand up to hijackers.

The first few minutes set the tone. The opening credits roll, interspersed with shots of Neerja partying and later readying for her flight, while the hijackers prepare for their mission by arranging grenades and bombs. Throughout the film, at crucial moments, Madhvani juxtaposes Neerja’s current situation with her past life — family, doting mother, a short-lived marriage, and baby steps towards a better life with boyfriend Jaydeep (Shekhar Ravjiani) — effectively painting a composite portrait of a 23-year-old.

It couldn’t have been easy to recreate a hijacking on a set, but all credit to cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani and production designer Aparna Sud, who help the audience reimagine a horrifying ordeal. Throughout, director Madhvani handles the narrative with restraint, never overdoing emotions or violence and letting many things go unsaid.

Sonam Kapoor may seem a poor choice to play Bhanot, but she grows into the role. Towards the end, you cannot help but be moved by her performance. She is at once stoic, child-like and scared. This is an author-backed role that she bites her teeth into.

Shabana Azmi, playing Neerja’s mother, is the other highlight of this film. Azmi’s speech at the end of the film is one of the most poignant moments on screen this year, and that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

The flaws are few and the high points are many. ‘Neerja’ is the best film we’ve seen this year.