If I would have to bet my life on an actor who could make anyone cry in a matter of two minutes, I will put all my money in Shabana Azmi’s kitty. The veteran actor, who plays Neerja Bhanot’s affable mother in the biopic Neerja, totally steals the show in the last 20 minutes of the film, gently slicing through every emotional chord in your heart, making you root and cry for her brave daughter as if she was one of your own. It is this incredible emotional pull in director Ram Madhvani’s Neerja that makes it an unmissable film in many ways.
Telling the real-life story of the brave Pan Am Chief Flight Attendant Neerja Bhanot, the film not just provides the harrowing account of that ill-fated flight, it also magically takes you in the life and times of Neerja. So, while Sonam Kapoor enacts Neerja, in what is undoubtedly the most memorable performance of her career, you embrace Neerja lovingly and somewhat forget about the actor enacting the character. Sonam brings out Neerja in flesh and blood, portraying her free spirit, positive personality and even brandishing that unique streak of defiance (tucked behind her otherwise extremely pleasing smile) with aplomb. I have little doubt that Neerja would mark a turning point in Sonam Kapoor’s career with the producers-directors-writers sitting up and taking notice. The pretty fashionista has come of age!
But, if Neerja manages to register a huge impact on your heart and mind, it is considerably due to the terrific Shabana Azmi who lurks beautifully in the background through most of the film, only to come out all guns blazing in the final reels (so good to see her back in form post the tepid Jazbaa last year). She plays the doting mother to Neerja to perfection and makes you go numb at places with her sheer class as an actor. Special mention should be made of the film’s closing sequence where Shabana comes to the airport to receive her beloved daughter’s coffin and the subsequent scene where she delivers a small speech in front of an audience gathered to mark one year of Neerja’s martyrdom. If you manage to hold your tears in these scenes, you are probably either stoned or a stone.
While you may accuse me of being entirely swayed by Shabana Azmi and too an extent by Sonam Kapoor in the film, I intend to take nothing away from Ram Madhvani’s near-perfect retelling of an episode that deserves to be heard, seen and absorbed by everyone. Madhvani merits all the praise for never letting the momentum slip in the film’s 2-hour runtime and also never overplaying the patriotic or emotional cards. In fact, he chooses silence over any sort of background score in some of the film’s key moments and allows you as an audience to grapple with the situation on hand. And it works brilliantly on all occasions – be it when the hijackers unleash their brutalities inside the aircraft, leaving you suitably horrified, or when the brave Neerja sacrifices her life to save her passengers, leaving you in a pool of tears.
Madhvani has also deftly used intercuts throughout the film to recount Neerja’s experiences from a bad marriage, bringing out sharp contrasts in narrative – hope and despair, love and loss, bravery and cowardice. Apart from the brilliant intercuts, Neerja also boasts of some top class cinematography (handheld, shaky shots inside the aircraft) and effective low-key lighting that make the tension palpable.
Overall, Neerja is a riveting biopic and a worthy tribute – a heartwarming and heartfelt account of the short but extraordinary life of Neerja Bhanot. It is as much an uplifting mother-daughter story as it is about the exemplary courage shown by a dutiful flight attendant. Go watch. And keep some tissue papers handy.
Rating: ****1/2 (Excellent)