Sunday, February 21, 2016

Neerja: Courage in the Face of Terrorism

There was a time when flying was a glamorous business. Neerja Bhanot brought a little of that back. The part time fashion model was also a flight hostess for Pan Am Airways. Tragically, her first flight as the head purser of her Bombay-based crew was Pan Am 73. Its ultimate destination was New York’s JFK, but so-called “Palestinians” in the Abu Nidal Organization hijacked the plane during its Karachi layover. Thanks to Bhanot’s quick thinking, the terrorists would go no further, but that placed her even more in harm’s way. Bhanot’s courageous story is stirringly dramatized in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Right from the opening scene, can see Bhanot is the life of the party, as her friends and family wait for her to arrive and inject some vigor into their snoozy get-together. Even though she had made inroads into the glamorous world of modeling, she still loved her job as a flight hostess. Life was pleasant for Bhanot, but it was not always so. During her brief arranged marriage to Kishore Mishra, she was constantly abused, both physically and emotionally. However, surviving his torments gave her strength and insight for dealing with the Abu Nidal terrorists.

Disguised in stolen uniforms, the would-be hijackers shot their way on-board during the stopover in Karachi. However, Bhanot was able to alert the flight crew, who duly followed procedure, evacuating through the cockpit emergency hatch. Being stuck on the ground drastically changed the nature of the operation for the Islamist hijackers. Hoping to regain some leverage, the terrorists instructed Neerja to collect all passports so they could identify Americans. Again, Bhanot foiled their schemes, instructing her crew to hide all American passports. There were forty-one Americans on that flight but only two were murdered.

It is pretty inspiring to watch Bhanot stand-up to the so-called “Palestinian” mass murderers and strategically think two or three steps ahead of them. Madhvani’s cross-cutting between the hijacking and Mishra’s misogynistic cruelty runs the risk of heavy-handedness, but it establishes how she found the resolution and presence-of-mind to undercut the hijacking and hostage executions. Nevertheless, at the risk of being spoilery, those who are not familiar with Bhanot’s story should not expect a happily-ever-after conclusion.

In fact, Madhvani rather viscerally captures a sense of the horror and chaos when the “Palestinian” terrorists open fire on the passengers. He also shows in no uncertain terms what Islamists do best: hit women and point guns at young children. You really start to understand the realities of terrorism in Neerja, up-close and personal. Yet, thanks to Bhanot, there were only twenty fatalities out three hundred sixty-one passengers and a crew of twenty.

Sonam Kapoor not only looks a lot like the historical Bhanot. She also projects the necessary courage, grace, and dignity. She is no martyr caricature. Kapoor’s Bhanot often has to fight off panic and re-summon her courage. It is a forceful but down to earth performance that emphasizes her empathy and resilience, showing us just what a fighter Bhanot was.

Neerja is definitely the sort of film that will choke up viewers, but when the lights go up and you start to think about what happened on Pan Am 73, it will make you mad. When you watch the national rage expressed in Kabir Khan’s Phantom, it is hard to blame India for resenting America’s refusal to extradite Mubai 2008 terrorist David Headley. Yet, what can they expect when they responded to the 1986 hijacking by officially recognizing the supposed state of Palestine and continuing to send aid to the terrorist-dominated Authority? That’s really showing the hijackers. At least there has been some tilting towards the democratic state of Israel following the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Regardless, Neerja puts an acutely human face on the issue of terrorism. Kapoor does awards-caliber work, as does Anna Ipe & Apparna Sud’s production design team, which convincingly recreates the era’s analog airliner and retro-eighties trappings. Madhvani is not shy when it comes to manipulating viewers, but he keeps them focused like a laser beam, ever if they know how it all must end. Highly recommended, Neerja is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.