Bollywood seems to have taken a shine to planes this year. First, Airlift. Now, Neerja. But that isn’t the only similarity between the films. Both are a new kind of Bollywood movie, closer to Hollywood in terms of tone (refined) and treatment (slick). They get box-office assurance from the star at the centre (Akshay Kumar there, Sonam Kapoor here), but the faces around them are mostly unfamiliar and come with no baggage, leaving the impression that we’re watching something… real. I don’t want to oversell this aspect of these films, but it makes a difference when we’re watching the secondary parts being played by (relative) unknowns as opposed to say, Jimmy Shergill. (The only other big name in Neerja is Shabana Azmi.) This adds to the docu-fiction feel director Ram Madhvani is going for, which is the opposite end of the spectrum from a disaster movie like The Burning Train, with stars in every compartment. (That, of course, is its own kind of fun.)
This quasi-realistic approach revitalises the material, which is classic Indian melodrama. Neerja is a heroine not just because of what she did on that plane (she was Head Purser), but because the character is “built up” in the manner of a hero, The Chosen One. Her birth is portentous. Her mother had two sons and prayed for a daughter – she’s a gift from the gods, and gods’ gifts don’t last very long. Her attitude is portentous. She’s a fan of Anand, and her favourite line is “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin.” The happenings around her are portentous. The ring that her mother had made (for her safety) goes missing the day of the ill-fated flight, and just as terrorists (affiliated to the Abu Nidal group) take over, the mother back home feels something, as though the universe were sending a sign. And note the teary subplot about the yellow salwaar kameez, a birthday present. (Neerja Bhanot died two days before her 23rd birthday, but the film nudges the date a little closer to her death, so there’s an added sense of tragedy: She didn’t just die young, she died on her birthday.) Note, also, the advertising hoarding at the traffic light where Neerja and the man who likes her (Shekhar Ravjiani) stop. It’s for bridal wear. Not only did she die young, not only did she die on her birthday, she died just when she found a man who wanted to marry her.
On the flight too, after the hijack (as one of the terrorists, Jim Sarbh is superb, an explosive waiting to explode), Neerja is the only one who can function, the only one with pluck. She stands up to the terrorists. The others cower in fear, looking to her for support and direction. I don’t know how much of this is real and how much is embellishment, but that isn’t the point – the point is that all of this adds up to a grand hero-narrative. But the usual macho bluster isn’t there because Neerja is a woman. Madhvani keeps cutting to her past with an insecure, chauvinistic pig of a husband who wanted a servant, not a wife. (Even these cuts are classic Bollywood. The transition from, say, someone rapping on a door in the present to a similar action in the past, is reminiscent of the structure of films like Aandhi, where specific actions and sounds triggered specific memories.) So we know Neerja had to suffer in a situation unique to woman, and yet, later, she doesn’t play the woman card when one of the terrorists feels her up roughly to make sure she is unarmed. Another kind of film would have zoomed in on her shame to deepen our sympathies, but Neerja knows just how much to push, just how much is enough.
In other words, films like Airlift and Neerja don’t shy away from the emotional maximalism of Bollywood. (There’s actually a scene where the family dog howls by the door.) They use a lot of what makes Bollywood work for a large audiences – but temper these ingredients to cater to the tastes of smaller audiences in the big cities. They’re Bollywood films for people who like their chaat but won’t visit a street vendor. They’d rather be in a nice, air-conditioned restaurant. Same food, different setting. I must say I like this approach. Because earlier, the only two kinds of films we made were street food or Cordon Bleu, masala or high art. Now, we have this… middle-cinema, if you want to call it that, melodramatic content made palatable by a sedate documentary-like style – with hand-held cameras, more silence than background music. The film observes the most horrifying events (a grandmother weeping over a dead grandson, a husband mourning the pregnant wife who’s been shot, or even Neerja’s distraught mother seeing other mothers walk their daughters home from school) with a cool, calm gaze. And this holding back helps, because when it’s time to cry, the dam bursts and we really cry.
Sonam Kapoor is pretty good, but she still cannot make the heavier scenes work – like the one in which she’s forced to sing in front of the passengers. (Her best performance is still the one as the child-woman of Aisha. I get the feeling that was all her.) The deficiencies are heightened by the presence of a genuine dramatic heavyweight like Shabana Azmi, whose motherliness is magnificent – the character comes across as a giant bosom you want to bury your head in and weep your worries away. I watched her final speech through a thick film of tears. It’s a terrific example of how to deliver a message but not make the audience feel they’re listening to a message. Even as she repeats Imam Saab’s Sholay line about there being no greater pain than that of a child’s loss (but with less melodrama, more understatement), she marvels that this girl had it in her to be so brave. Neerja makes us see what a lovely person Neerja was, beyond the heroine she became. She was genuinely nice, principled, life-loving – and all this is emphasised in the opening stretch where the film keeps cutting between celebrations at Neerja’s housing society and preparations by the terrorists, between crowds and loners, between sunshine and darkness, between a Pomeranian with sunglasses and men with bullets and bombs, between life and death.
Neerja carries a special resonance for those who were around in the eighties, when Pan Am seemed to be jinxed – hijacked at Karachi, bombed over Lockerbie. I enjoyed the (sometimes neon-lit) evoking of the era’s memorabilia – the ubiquitous vanity case, cassettes that needed to be spooled with pencils, even Giani Zail Singh. But the detail that killed me was the Mills & Boon by Neerja’s bedside. I don’t know if girls today still read these romances, but the book conjures up so many things – libraries in middle-class neighbourhoods, at least a little bit of naiveté, a hope that things will always turn out okay even if the world is against you, a phase in life where you can still while time away without guilting yourself that you aren’t reading something heavier, better, more useful. That was the stage Neerja was at when she died, regaining hope and faith and self-confidence after a lousy marriage. Neerja is a fine tribute to a woman whose wings were clipped just as she was beginning to fly.
- Airlift = see here
- The Burning Train = see here
- “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin” = Life should be big, not long. A line from Anand.
- Aandhi = see here
- chaat = see here
- Aisha = see here
- Sholay = see here; and here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.