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03 June 2023

Bollywood review: ‘Neerja’ is a story that deserves to be told

By Sneha May Francis

Movies about unsung heroes are genuinely uplifting, so when director Ram Madhvani decides to celebrate the valiant Neerja Bhanot through Mitesh Mirchandani’s staggering lenses, there’s enough reason to applaud. In 1986, the young Indian airhostess, who was just two days short of her 24th birthday, braved the armed terrorists to save 300 lives on board the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73.

Ram, on his part, refrains from injecting the narrative with Bollywood frills or stereotypes, and focuses on honestly recreating the crucial 17 hours before the big escape. There are a few songs, which thankfully play out in the backdrop without interfering with the texture of the screenplay.

The action, however, is firmly restricted to the grounded aircraft, as we watch, with terrorizing agony, how the four men taunt and torment the passengers and the crew after their initial plan fails to take off.

Every moment is crucial, and Ram keeps the pulse intact, never allowing us to twitch or yawn.

With a story that’s already celebrated, it’s notable how writer Saiwyn Quadras brings thrill and menace to those crucial hours, as lives are locked down and tortured. She lends depth to Neerja by linking her present to her past, and how those setbacks drives her to do the unthinkable.

Even the artwork is decent, with vintage detailing of the aircraft and glimpses of life outside it sticking to the flavour of the 1980s.

Ram, however, does let the proceedings dip, when he randomly exploits Neerja by forcing her to sing, or when the armed men are seen ruthlessly abusing passengers. It’s explosive, but a little exaggerated.

Even casting Sonam Kapoor is rather unfortunate. She looks the part and is sincere, no doubt, but there are actors who could’ve lived the part far more convincingly. There are moments, many actually, where Sonam misses the beat, reducing Neerja’s heroism into a lesson in bad acting. And, that’s a shame.

Sonam's flaws are smoothened out by the class act of the four terrorists, who despite being new on the acting ground, are menacingly superlative.

There’s also Shabana Azmi, who effortlessly moves us with her stellar act. It’s during the final moments when she pays tribute to her darling Neerja that we understand Shabana’s true power. Unfortunately, that’s something Sonam fails to bring on-screen.

Still, ‘Neerja’ is a compelling watch. And, her’s is a story that deserves to be celebrated.