Neerja is a 2016 Indian Hindi-language biographical thriller film directed by Ram Madhvani and written by Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh. It was produced by Atul Kasbekar’s company, Bling Unplugged, alongside Fox Star Studios. The film features Sonam Kapoor as the title character, with Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku and Shekhar Ravjiani in supporting roles.
The plot is based on a real-life event: Libyan-backed Abu Nidal Organization’s hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan, on 5 September 1986. The film is shown from the point of view of the flight’s head purser, Neerja Bhanot, who thwarted the hijack attempt by alerting the pilots, thus grounding the plane; Bhanot died trying to help save 359 of the 379 passengers and crew on board.
Development began in September 2014, when Kasbekar signed Madhvani and Kapoor for a film to be made by Bling Unplugged and Fox Star Studios. Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyuktha Chawla worked on the script, with principal photography taking place in Mumbai. The film features music by Vishal Khurana, with lyrics written by Prasoon Joshi. Neerja was released on 19 February 2016 to critical acclaim, and became one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films featuring a female protagonist. The film grossed ₹135.52 crore (US$19 million) at the box office.
The film received a number of accolades at Bollywood award organisations, with particular praise for Kapoor’s performance and Madhvani’s direction. It won two awards at the 64th National Film Awards including Best Feature Film in Hindi and Special Mention for Kapoor. At the 62nd Filmfare Awards, Neerja won six awards, including Best Film (Critics), Best Actress (Critics) (Kapoor), and Best Supporting Actress (Azmi).
The film opens with 22-year-old Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) arriving late for a house party. Later that evening, her mother Rama Bhanot (Shabana Azmi) expresses concern about Neerja’s job as a flight attendant, suggesting that Neerja should return to her old modelling career. Neerja insists on keeping her job. She is driven to the airport by her boyfriend Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani).
During the flight, Neerja reflects on her brief, unhappy arranged marriage to Naresh (Kavi Shastri), a professional in Doha, Qatar, who abused her over her small dowry and inability to perform household work. She eventually returned home for a modelling contract. Naresh sent her parents a letter complaining about the dowry and their daughter’s lack of domestic skills, demanding that Neerja either bring back money or not return at all. Neerja left Naresh and landed a job with Pan Am Airways.
As Neerja boards Pan Am 73, it is meanwhile revealed that the Abu Nidal organisation, a Libyan-sponsored Palestinian terrorist group, plans to hijack the plane in Karachi. The plane takes off from Mumbai’s Sahar International Airport and lands in Karachi, where the four Abu Nidal terrorists, disguised as security officers escorting a Libyan diplomat, hijack the plane. Neerja quickly alerts the cockpit, without the terrorists knowing, and the three American pilots escape through the overhead hatch, fleeing to the terminal under fire from the hijackers. The American pilots had just enough time to escape, as the hijackers did not realise that the cockpit of a Boeing 747 is located upstairs.
When an Indian American passenger reveals himself as an American, one of the terrorists murders him and throws his body off the aircraft in front of the Pakistani negotiators. The terrorists try to locate a radio engineer among the passengers by ordering Neerja to make an announcement over the intercom. When Imran Ali (Shashi Bhushan), a Pakistani radio engineer, begins to stand up, Neerja signals for him to sit down. The terrorists have the flight attendants collect all passports to identify the American passengers and hold them hostage; Neerja and her colleagues collect the passports, disposing of any American passports by throwing them down trash chutes or hiding them under seats. Dejected over not finding any American passports, the hijackers locate a British passenger and hold him hostage.
The Pakistani negotiators inadvertently reveal the name of radio engineer Ali, whom the hijackers bring to the cockpit to use the radio for negotiations. Meanwhile, the Pakistani authorities try to stall for time. When a younger terrorist assaults the passengers and molests the attendants, the terrorist leader chastises him; humiliated, the younger terrorist storms into the cockpit and shoots Ali, screaming wild threats over the radio. While negotiations with the Pakistani air controllers drag on, the negotiators slowly lose control of the situation, with the hijackers becoming more agitated by the minute.
Around 17 hours later, the plane loses auxiliary power, and the lights go out inside the plane. Despite Neerja and the other attendants’ attempts to explain, the terrorists assume the Pakistanis cut the power deliberately, and anticipate an imminent Pakistani raid on the plane. The panicking hijackers begin shooting down passengers indiscriminately; at great peril to her own life, Neerja opens the emergency exit door and deploys the chute, directing passengers out of the plane. Choosing to let the passengers escape first, Neerja is shot by a terrorist as she tries to shield three young children from the gunfire. The children escape the plane and Neerja then drags herself out of the doorway and down the emergency slide before dying.
The film ends with a tribute to Neerja, who was eventually honoured posthumously with the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest military decoration awarded for peacetime valor, courageous action or self-sacrifice.
Sonam Kapoor as Neerja Bhanot. In an interview with IBT, Kapoor describes her character and explains, “Neerja is an extremely principled girl with the most amazing characteristics. She had the presence of mind, the compassion, and the kindness to take care of other people and not herself.”
Aarush Rana as Jatin Desai
Anjali Khurana as Dolly
Sunanda Wong as Tina
Eisha Chopra as Debina
Meghana Kaushik as Sanjana
Arjun Aneja as Aneesh Bhanot, Neerja’s brother
Nikhil Sangha as Akhil Bhanot, Neerja’s brother
Ismail Mohammed Mirza as Al Turk
Ali Baldiwala as Mansoor, a terrorist
Vikrant Singta as Fahad, a terrorist
Abrar Zahoor as Zayd Safirini, a terrorist
Jim Sarbh as Khalil, a terrorist
Shashi Bhushan as radio engineer Emran Ali
Deepak Shah as brigadier
Sushil Tyagi as Inzamam Younis
Kavi Shastri as Naresh, Neerja’s ex-husband
Yogendra Tiku as Harish Bhanot, Neerja’s father
Shabana Azmi as Rama Bhanot, Neerja’s mother
Shekhar Ravjiani as Jaideep, Neerja’s boyfriend
Prashantt Guptha as Rahul Kumar
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