Watched cold, with no knowledge of Indian history, Ram Madhvani's film is an intense thriller with a highly sympathetic heroine and vicious villains, but for Indians, presumably, Neerja is no thriller at all. Its outcome would be known to everyone but those ignorant of their own history. Neerja Bhanot is a national heroine, a 22 year old model and stewardess who died rescuing hundreds of hostages from her hijacked jetliner in 1986. Inevitably, Neerja will be a different experience depending on whether you know the title character's story or not. If not, as was my case, the climax comes as a gut punch. But I imagine it was still a gut punch for Indian audiences earlier this year, since Sonam Kapoor gives such a vibrant and appealing performance in the title role that people probably were rooting for her to make it even when they knew better.
For Indian moviegoers there had to be great pathos every time Neerja's father asks, "Who's my brave girl?" and one of the ironies of the story, on film at least, is that she hardly feels brave before the crisis comes. In a flashback subplot, we learn that she ran away from the husband her parents arranged for her to marry. Hubby was quite the jerk, apparently, verbally and perhaps physically abusive, and Neerja's doting parents have the good sense to tell her she made the right decision. The film finds her in a happy place, the life of the party before she boards her final flight, though her mother would rather she stuck to modeling than fly in planes that could crash -- or who knows what else might happen?
Neerja's flight stops in Karachi, Pakistan, on the way to Frankfurt. In Karachi, a terrorist cell in fake uniforms storms the plane. These are oldschool terrorists from the good old days, Palestinian nationalists (and quite secular for all I know) loyal to Abu Nidal. Their object is to force the release of comrades held in a Cypriot prison. They're not the best-trained or best-briefed hijackers. They don't know that the cockpit is in an upper compartment of the plane, and in the initial confusion Neerja is able to warn the pilots that a hijack is under way, enabling them to escape through a hatch in the cockpit ceiling.
A waiting game begins. The terrorists demand that the pilots return to the plane, or that new pilots be sent. When a young Hindu man makes the mistake of identifying himself as an American citizen, the hijackers kill him right in front of Neerja to show negotiators on the tarmac that they mean business. Ordered to collect the passengers' passports, Neerja tells her crew to hide all the American passports, kicking them under the seats when necessary when their captors aren't looking. The hijackers rightly find it hard to believe that there are no other Americans on the plane, but Neerja's best intentions only move the British passengers to the front of the peril line.
We and Neerja can see that the terrorists are starting to crack. They're confused and frustrated, having expected to fly where they wanted, but their anger and anxiety only make them more dangerous. All it takes is for the lights to go out for hell to break loose. While all the terrorists are heinous villains, Neerja's writers and actors do a fine job individualizing them, making some more hateful or simply more crazy than others. Madhvani effectively creates a claustrophobic, impatient atmosphere of constantly ratcheting tension as the terrorists lose control and Neerja plans an exit strategy for the passengers. The climax is exhilarating terror as all the minor characters we've been introduced to Airport-style seem equally in mortal peril, while some make a stand against their tormentors United 93-style and Neerja shepherds as many people as possible out the emergency exits. From what little I've read the filmmakers have made Neerja's sacrifice even more heroic than the impressive reality, but I can understand the artistic need for dramatic license to keep the audience guessing when the end will come, or hoping against reason that she might escape. What comes after inevitably seems anticlimactic, but given how strongly the film has emphasized Neerja's bond with her parents, I suppose it's only right that they, and particularly her mother (Shabana Azmi), have the final words. My final word is that Neerja is a strong Indian contribution to the modern terrorist genre anchored by Sonam Kapoor's charismatic performance, and a sad reminder that this sort of thing has been going on longer than Americans may suppose.