By: Samar Khan
Based on the true story of an Indian Pan-Am flight attendant/purser who helped a plane of hijacked hostages escape from the hands of Islamist terrorist, Neerja is the tale of now-legendary Indian icon Neerja Bhanot. Similar to our Airlift review from a while back, Neerja does not closely follow the “Bollywood outline” that we established in our Dilwale review (once again, we urge you all to read the review as it is far superior to the actual film), so this review will utilize a slightly modified Bollywood review system. The film stars Sonam Kapoor as the titular hero(ine) who has had an extremely spotty acting record going in; did she deliver to us a film that would do justice to the story of Neerja Bhanot or were we given another mishandled biopic by Bollywood?
Neerja’s plot was fairly familiar to most people that knew of the case, being that it is historical fact. Once again, to highlight the plot, we will a brief synopsis for those unfamiliar with the tale: the film centers on 22-year-old Neerja Bhanot, who is in the midst of a flight to Frankfurt that has a layover in Pakistan. Since it is Pakistan, hijinks ensue wherein Islamic terrorists (surprisingly not Pakistani but rather Palestinian) hijack the plane and demand the release of their fellow prisoners and transport to Cyprus. The film chronicles the efforts of Bhanot and her crew in keeping her passengers alive and leading them to safety. The script was actually fairly well-penned, with no random humour segments or comedic segments inserted to inevitably muddle the pacing. The film’s major issue, however, was its overreliance on melodrama and its belief that its chosen lead could carry scenes better suited to more skilled actors.
The story itself was fantastic (I urge you all to read about the real-life story afterwards in more detail), but the writers biggest failings concerned their inability to tell a historically accurate tale without using cheap melodramatic scenes (a Bollywood trope by now), effectively breaking the immersion and reminding viewers they were, in fact, watching a Bollywood film. The most notable issue with the script, however, concerns the titular lead; there are scenes that were expected to provide an emotional heft to the film and have viewers sympathize with the lead character. Due to the horrendous decision to have Sonam Kapoor act well beyond her element (why even have such powerful scenes at all if Kapoor’s career has consistently demonstrated that she cannot portray emotional characters at all?), the script is weaker for it.
This segment was rather difficult to render judgement and that was due to the hit-and-miss performances of the supporting cast. First off, before we go anywhere, the highlight of this film was clearly Shabana Azmi’s performance, which was as emotional and poignant as we’ve come to expect from her throughout her legendary career as probably the finest actors in Indian cinematic history. Azmi is complemented by a superb performance delivered by Yogendra Tikku as Harish Bhanot, her on-screen husband whose emotions felt genuine and he combined well with his on-screen wife and provided a very human element to the film.
Azmi is brilliant enough to mask the failure of the supporting cast that makes up the villainous quartet of terrorists. Ali Baldiwala, Rohit Assija and Vikrant Singta play some of the most overdramatized caricatures of Islamist terrorists yet, with their characters actually inspiring some eye rolling and chuckling in our theatre due to just how exaggerated they were at times.
Jim Sarbh plays their fellow terrorist Khalil, a loose cannon whose facial expressions were as frightening as they come in recent Bollywood memory. Despite the fact that he was also effectively a caricature, his performance stands out for the intensity he brings to the role, something his counterparts in terrorist garb lacked. He truly inspired chills every time he was on screen despite the mediocre scripting of his character, a testament to his quality and sign that he may be destined for greater things in the future.
Finally, we have Sonam Kapoor, whose aforementioned spotty filmography was worthy of some hesitation heading in. Similar to Katrina Kaif, who turned in one of her better efforts in the recent Fitoor, Kapoor delivered a very good performance at times that was unfortunately dragged down by her being asked to do too much. The majority of her scenes were executed well, with no sign that she was cracking under the pressure of such a stressful role; unfortunately, there were some scenes (including a certain “sing now” scene) that had the audience visibly questioning whether the young star was laughing or crying. That’s never a good sign and a clear indicator that the role may have been better suited for a star that has the range necessary for such a character. Alas, an inconsistent supporting cast combines with the inconsistent scripting and decision-making by the director (we don’t always need excessive melodrama, Bollywood) to drag the film down a
Since the nature of the film wasn’t quite your typical Hindi cinematic fare, the soundtrack was not as essential as it would be in something such as Dilwale or Bajirao Mastani. Therefore, Neerja’s background score will be covered in more extensive detail than the usual song-and-dance. The score here was extremely well done, although lacking anything special. There were multiple scenes throughout the film that had a beautiful soundtrack play that accentuated the tension. For all of the complaints about the excessive melodrama, there are not many complaints about the melodramatic score, which actually sounded very fitting and appropriate. Rather, the issue with said melodramatic score would be that it was overused, just as with its scenic counterparts. There is indeed “too much of a good thing” and the production team chose to overshoot and added more than what was needed, which served to reduce the impact of the existing score just a tad.
Outside of the aforementioned melodrama and acting issues that hampered the film, the editing was actually very well executed. Scene transitions between flashbacks to Bhanot’s past with an abusive ex-husband to current events in the plane to shots of the Pakistani airport and an actual plane that wasn’t awfully CG’ed meant that actual effort was put into making the film feel authentic. There were no lingering cuts and a wonderful decision was made on the part of the editors to not just randomly pop “Interval” on the screen signalling halftime; rather, they used the emotion generated from a certain impactful scene and freeze-framed on it, with said freeze-frame doubly serving as a reminder about the tragic nature of the film as well as the effects terrorism has on people.
Despite its flaws, Neerja’s emotional impact –especially in the second half- had people tearing up which indicates that it was successful at capturing the heart of its audience. The film mostly does justice to the tale of an Indian hero, and her accomplishments listed at the end speak volumes about just how widespread her acclaim was and the extent of her heroism. For viewers interested in a film that has flaws but is otherwise very good at the bits in between the flaws, prepare for an entertaining night at the movies. Truly a crowd pleaser, and one we have no problem recommending to our readers.
We here at The Film Lawyers have decided to grace Neerja with a grade of C+ (7.0/10).