A formula often applied in films portraying terror events, is to open with a comforting back story. The purpose: make the characters endearing and the ‘calm before the storm’ only makes the latter more impactful. Set in 1986, this one ushers us into a world where pens helped rewind audio cassettes, when all men after a certain age had a moustache and women with short hair were mostly air-hostesses. Flaunting an old-fashioned bob, Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) is one too. She’s also the life of neighbourhood parties at Navjeevan Society in Mumbai — where she resides with her parents and two brothers. Intermittent flashbacks reveal that she’s nursing the wounds of a failed marriage and is presently unsure of jumping the gun with her present interest Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani in a promising cameo).
We’re quickly rushed into the focal incident of the film, when Neerja’s flight — headed to New York — is hijacked during a stopover in Karachi. As the pilots manage to flee the aircraft, the terrorists initiate a threatening negotiation with airport personnel. A series of terrifying events follow, as hostages struggle to survive and Neerja strives to reason with the terrorists to make occasional allowances. Apart from who makes it and who doesn’t, the ‘how’ makes it worth a watch.
It’s scary how much this film leans on Sonam Kapoor. Luckily, she’s adequately restrained, and pulling a ceramic smile makes her only more believable as a flight purser. Calling it her best performance ever wouldn’t be a stretch, but given her filmography, it’s hardly a contest either. Shabana Azmi as Neerja’s mother is intense, yet not the chest-beating-melodramatic mess as one would imagine her to be — given her character’s distraught state. Among the terrorists, Jim Sarbh’s Khaleel is a ruthless brute who intimidates by being unpredictable and merciless.
Ram Madhvani, known to most as an award-winning ad filmmaker, made his debut with Let’s Talk (2002), an indie film that explores the various facets of adultery. Here, he tightly packs the chain of events that lead up to the inevitable. The obvious challenge would’ve been infusing fear and thrill into a story with a known ending. This, he accomplishes by throwing in surprises as the terrorists have sporadic outbursts and frantic fits as the holes in their mission begin to surface. Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani ensures he has complete control over what you see and don’t. So to show how different passengers deal with terror, a pan across the cabin with no particular focus manages this in a subtle yet effective way.
If you’ve read about the real events that have inspired this film, you know how it will fold up. But even so, this one scores for managing to pack in a few surprises.