Three decades after a New York-bound Pan Am flight was hijacked in the Pakistani city of Karachi, a Bollywood film revisits the incident through the story of a 23-year-old Indian flight attendant named Neerja Bhanot who died while saving the lives of the 389 passengers onboard.
Releasing today, Neerja looks at Bhanot’s courageous role during the 16-hour siege of Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked by four armed Palestinian men from the Abu Nidal Organization in the early hours of Sept. 6, 1986. The hijackers demanded that the aircraft fly to Cyprus, where they hoped to release Palestinian prisoners, but the plane never took off from the Karachi airport because the pilots and cockpit crew had escaped.
Bhanot, who was the senior flight purser, introduced herself to the terrorists as the crew in charge. She hid the passports of some passengers to prevent the terrorists from identifying their nationalities. She also helped several passengers escape through an emergency door, and died while shielding three children from gunfire. Around 20 passengers were killed in the hijacking.
Madhvani envisioned the film as a story of an ordinary young woman who found herself in an extraordinarily tense situation. “She came from an ordinary middle-class, but very protective family who pampered her with a lot of love. She loved laughter, life, music and Hindi films,” Kapoor told Mashable. “Yet, she was very idealistic. During those 16 hours, this ordinary girl used the best qualities in her to become this heroic leader.”
Madhvani and his team spent a considerable period of time researching not only the story of the hijacking, but also Bhanot’s personality. They made a timeline, met numerous survivors, studied Bhanot’s ads as a print model, her recordings, and spoke extensively to her family and friends to understand minute details like her taste in music and books. Kapoor says her month-long training as a flight attendant made her realise how passenger safety was such as a key part of Bhanot’s work.
Since the film was based on a real-life incident and person, Neerja’s team had the added responsibility of being accurate and sensitive to the survivors’ experiences. “The responsibility is huge when the survivors and her family are living with the trauma,” Madhvani told Mashable. “We wanted to capture some reality of what happened in the plane and to do justice to that feeling.”
It is also Kapoor’s first role based on a real-life personality. “All your homework is done, her personality is there, as opposed to a fictional character who exists only in your head,” Kapoor says. “Yet, you need to live up to her image and not let down the memory of her family. It’s a different process of capturing the person’s soul. It is daunting but strives you to be better”.
Stylistically too, the film was shot in a realist tone. “I want to be a humanist filmmaker. I am interested in emotional stories, in passing on a value system in the movies I make,” Madhvani says, adding that his cinematic influences include Mike Leigh and Asghar Farhadi. The Pan Am aircraft was meticulously recreated in the form of a set. “I embraced the challenge of capturing the energy of a claustrophobic space,” Madhvani adds.
Each of the sequences was shot according to a timeline, at the time that the event actually happened in 1986. Madhvani also kept filming as natural as possible using long takes and hand-held cameras, despite the challenge of working with a cast of 250 extras who were playing the passengers. “I don’t say action and cut,” Madhvani explains. “The word ‘action’ makes you tense, which is not necessary.”
The film’s beautiful scenes have already received praise, and owe their aesthetic sensibility to Madhvani’s background as an ad filmmaker. Neerja is his second feature film, made 14 years after his debut Let’s Talk. “Advertising teaches you what to say, how to say it, and what should the audience feel,” he says. “I want my films to become a part of a conversation and popular culture.”
A recurring theme of Neerja will be overcoming fear. “There is a certain value system that Neerja stood for, about facing your fears,” Madhvani explains. Accordingly, the Neerja team has also been running a social media campaign by inviting people to share their biggest fears. “She faced her fear and looked it in the eye,” Kapoor adds. “She is inspirational. She is my hero.”
Neerja releases on Feb. 19, 2016.
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