Movie review: Neerja

By Peter Calder

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Sonam Kapoor, who plays the title character Neerja Bhanot in this gripping hijack drama. Photo / Supplied
Sonam Kapoor, who plays the title character Neerja Bhanot in this gripping hijack drama. Photo / Supplied

It's no spoiler to say that the title character of this powerfully affecting true-life drama dies at the end.

The real woman's elderly mother tells us as much before the opening credits as, sitting in the production's mocked-up airline cabin, she bestows extravagant blessings on her daughter.

That daughter is Neerja Bhanot, a Mumbai native and Pan Am purser who died from gunshot wounds received as she shielded three children from terrorists who had hijacked her plane on the runway in Karachi on September 5, 1986.

Her courage and resourcefulness she engineered the safe escape of all but 20 of the 380 passengers and crew even as the hijackers ran amok, firing indiscriminately earned her posthumous awards for bravery in three countries: if her story is unfamiliar to audiences here, she is fabled on the sub-continent.

This film, which has been doing good business on the local Hindi-language circuit, is seeking a crossover audience, and it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a Bollywood curio.

The original plan was to release a Westernised version, which strips away the musical touches, but they are very sparing in this, the original, cut (which comes complete with an "intermission" title card though no intermission).

And they are certainly secondary to a sleek and gripping thriller which has the extra dimension of being, at its heart, the story of the love between a mother and her daughter.

The film pays only cursory attention to the hijack drama, and the military's ineffective rescue efforts, using flashback to fill out the character of Neerja (Kapoor) and explore the provenance of her extraordinary strength of character.

In that back story, her parents Rama (Azmi) and Harish (Tiku) play important roles and it would take a very hard heart indeed not to tear up at Rama's speech at her daughter's memorial service.

Made for a mere US$3 million, Neerja is a little clunky at times: the dramatic irony is laid on thick, the handheld camerawork shaky and the editing rhythms will seem a little unfamiliar. But the conviction of the main performances makes up for all this.

If you've never sampled the mainstream output of the world's biggest movie industry, this is an excellent place to start.

Review: Neerja

Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Shekhar Ravjiani, Kavi Shastri, Shashi Bhushan
Director: Ram Madhvani Running time: 122 mins
Rating: R13 (violence and content that may disturb)
Language: In English, Hindi and Arabic with English subtitles
Verdict: Sleek, gripping and affecting

- TimeOut

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