Sunday, January 29, 2017

Neerja―Amazing Courage

I always remember Baradwaj Rangan Sir's piece on Aisha, which is one of my favorite pieces of writing in cinema, and I go back to it every few months. In his post on the film, he writes, "Even the way Aisha sips from a spoon has a calculated daintiness, just this side of precious, and it‘s only fitting that she reveals she’s in love by mumbling through a mouthful of gaajar halwa, as if alleviating the bitter onset of a grown-up emotion." It is such a wonderful interpretation of the sweetness of gaajar halwa. While watching Ram Madhvani's Neerja, I remembered the aforementioned scene when Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) reads the letter from Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani) and eats a chocolate cookie that he had given her. It is a heartbreaking scene when she reads the lines from Anand that life should be big and not long. In Before Sunrise, Céline had said, "I’m so scared of those few seconds of consciousness before you are going to die." Perhaps, Neerja had some own premonition of hers that her life is going to end, which is why she read Jaideep's letter to her before her birthday. She was proposed for marriage, and the sweetness of the chocolate brings her a momentary comfort from the proceedings happening around her.
Neerja is the story of Neerja Bhanot, a purser of the airline Pan American World Airways. She was shot and killed when she was on Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by some terrorists belonging to Abu Nidal Organization. However, it was due to Neerja's sheer courage that she was able to save the lives of 359 out of 379 people on the flight. Ram Madhvani brings to life her story in his film, with Sonam Kapoor playing the eponymous role of Neerja brilliantly.

The film is meticulously researched with a lot of detailing. At one point, Neerja's mother switches on the geyser before waking her up. Neerja gets a polythene bag from under the mattress of her bed (like my home). We see that she reads a book by Mills & Boon. She picks video cassettes of the movies of Rajesh Khanna for her radio engineer friend in Karachi. We see a bunch of dholwalas in the background when Neerja comes to the airport. Since this was the eighties, anyone coming from or going to foreign was greeted with dholwalas at the airport. In the plane, a grandmother asks the airhostess if she is single so that she can fix her up with her single grandson, like all parents are fixated with marriage of their children. 
The film creates some really eerie moments that point to Neerja's impending death. In the first few scenes, a taxi driver blesses her with a long life, which will not be true. Later, her brother refuses to give her the Stardust magazine that she wanted to read, and he says, "Tu mar nahi jayegi agar nahi padegi toh." And, she did die without reading it. Neerja keeps repeating the line from Rajesh Khanna's Anand that life should be big, not long. Neerja's mother asks about a ring, which Neerja lost, as her mother thinks the ring was going to protect her. Neerja wants a dress for her birthday, which is in two days, and we know that she is going to die before her birthday. When she is getting ready to go to work, the terrorists are also ready getting ready. Her scenes are juxtaposed with those of terrorists as if both of them are preparing for some war. If she prays to the gods, they terrorists also do the same. At some other point, Neerja tells Jaideep that if he misses her, he can come and look at the billboard of her advertisement for a bridal dress. Jaideep will have to eventually come to that place. Initially, on the TV at Neerja's place, they are playing advertisements in which Neerja acted as a model. Later, when the plane is hijacked, the TV is playing the colorful lines of the rainbow that meant rukavat ke liye khed hai, as if signifying the interruption in Neerja's life. In the beginning moments of the film, a bunch of kids burst balloons continuously, making noise of a blast. Fascinatingly, a similar sound is made by another bunch of ill-prepared terrorists, but this time with guns. All these bring a slight chill to the proceedings in the film. 
Rukavat ke liye khed hai
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear." It was not that Neerja did not have any fear. She got scared but she remembers her father's message to not tolerate any kind of wrong-doing. She believed her duty towards other passengers to be far more important. Even in the end, she goes to search the plane for the kids who were left behind, though she could have easily got out from the plane. I always wonder from where people get such exceptional courage in themselves. During the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, we heard such brave stories of Taj Hotel's staffers putting their life in danger to save their patrons. At many times in Neerja, I was reminded of the quotes from the Mahabharata. At one point, Neerja starts giving water to the passengers. The hijacker threatens her with a gun, and asks her what she is doing. She says that she is just doing her duty. Like Krishna had said to Arjun, to do your duty without caring about the consequences. Her father tells her to not only to do anything that is wrong, but also do not tolerate anything that is wrong. Again, like Krishna said that if it is wrong to do adharma, it is a bigger wrong to tolerate adharma. Adharma karne se bada paap adharma sehna hai. Neerja took the advice from her father, and gathered the courage to stand-up to the terrorists in her own way. She tolerated her abusive husband earlier, but this time, she will not tolerate any injustice. She had no weapons, and the only weapon she had was her immense presence of mind, and she used it to save the life of the people on the flight. 
Neerja also shows how some people react when they have fear. It's the fear of unknown that scares us all. Neerja's mother tries to convince herself that nothing will happen to her. She gives assurance to others that everything will be all right. Neerja's brothers start crying. The first passenger, in fear, blurted out that he is an American and not an Indian, without realizing that the terrorists were actually looking for American citizens. One of the younger terrorists, too, felt fear initially when all of them were stopped for checking at the entry of the airport. In the plane, he sees a young kid wanting to go to the toilet and tells his leader that he should let him go as he is only a kid, as if he understands that because he is young, too. One of the main terrorists took out his fear in the form of anger by hitting his younger accomplice. In the end, the terrorists start shooting everyone as they got scared and panicked. And, then, there is Neerja, who managed to overcome her fear to do the impossible. As the film's tagline says, "Fear gave her courage." 
One of the reasons that I delayed watching realistic films, such as Neerja and Aligarh, is that the tragedy of the real-life incident guts me. All the while, I was hoping that somehow Neerja manages to escape. The moment she slides down the door after getting shot was so moving. The film underplays some of its finest moments, but at the same time, it hits you emotionally. After that, Neerja's mother gave such a beautiful speech that I almost bawled. Really, there is no greater pain than losing your own child. Shabani Azmi delivers the speech with empathy and humanism, without a single false note. 
Neerja's life went through two different phases of claustrophobia. She was trapped in a loveless and an abusive marriage. She wanted to get out, and she managed to do it the first time. Perhaps, that might have driven her to follow the profession where she keeps on flying. The second time, she again got trapped in a claustrophobic space, that reminded her of her marriage. She manages to get out, but this time unable to fly again forever. In the beginning moments of the film, Neerja says that she has seen Rajesh Khanna's Anand seven times in the theaters and remembers every line from the film. She often repeated, "Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin." Her life is a shining example of a life lived larger in her deeds than in years, which is why years later, she continues to inspire people who are her lifelong mureeds
Dialogue of the Day:
"Hamare me bhaiyon ko Veer bulate hain. Veer ko raakhi baandti hai behenein. Behnon se toh koi nahi kehta hamari raksha karna." 
―Rama Bhanot, Neerja

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