The only good Bollywood film I saw this year was Neerja. Actually it’s the only Bollywood film I saw this year in the theatre.
And no, ‘Fan’ hasn’t changed that.
Neerja is based on the true story of Neeja Bhanot who was the flight head purser with Pan Am flight 73 when it was hijacked in Karachi. Neerja heroically saved the lives of 359 passengers and crew members and tragically lost her own. And she was all of twenty two at the time!
I am embarrassed to admit that before this film I did not know who Neerja Bhanot was as would be the case with most people my generation and younger, I suspect. After watching this film what struck me was that it took Bollywood 30 years to uncover this story and honor it as a film!
Not that Neerja’s life and her story needs Bollywood’s acknowledgement of course, but the film is a reminder of where the priorities of our Hindi film industry lie. Over the last few decades, we have seen many films that are either based on or inspired by real life stories of both the notorious and the heroic. We saw films made on our great freedom fighters and martyrs (Gandhi, Bose, Bhagat Singh), on athletes (Milkha Singh), notorious gangsters and criminals (Dawood, Chhota Rajan) and even films on ‘real’ ghosts (Ragini MMS). But when it comes to making films on real life women who lived their lives with courage, bravery and selflessness, setting an example for future generations to follow, the films are few and far in between.
Instead, Bollywood almost always picks up stories of real women that can either be made into a sleazy/sexual film (The Dirty Picture) or where women are portrayed as victims (Bavandar, Bandit Queen).
And when women fight patriarchy or a corrupt system in films, they always do so in groups (Mirch Masala, Gulab Gang)
But with No One Killed Jessica, Mary Kom and now Neerja things are surely albeit slowly changing.
So who was Neerja? She was a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a career-woman and a quintessential Indian woman. Through this woman’s character the film sheds light on the Indian society in the 1980’s and a woman’s place in it.
Married at an early age (arranged marriage) Neerja remained in an abusive marriage for several months. But thankfully she knew that there’s no heroism in suffering.
Of course Neerja was shot and killed by those terrorists who hijacked her flight but a part of her was dead before those terrorists shot her. Neerja was first killed by her husband and the society that taught her to put herself last and that “adjust toh ladki ko hee karna padta hai.” (it is the girl who always has to adjust)
She may have got out of her marriage but the lesson to put herself last probably stayed with her, don’t you think? And that’s exactly what she did while performing her duties in the hijacked flight. Ironical, isn’t it?
Neerja became a martyr in 1986 and it took Bollywood 30 long years, three decades to tell her story. I wonder how much longer it will take for them to make a film on other strong real-life female figures like Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Rani Lakshmibai, Begum Hazrat and dozens of other freedom fighters who put their lives at risk and fought alongside men bravely, and whether justice will be done to their stories.
Neerja’s was a simple story in comparison to what an epic these women’s lives can turn out to be on screen. Therefore it needs a seasoned filmmaker who can masterfully switch between the personal and the political.
Talking about the film – what I liked about it was the portrayal of a simple Punjabi family living in Mumbai. The love that they had for their daughter seemed very real and relatable to me. There was no loudness or over the top behavior associated with a character of Punjabi mother. And we know by now that this character has been stereotyped in so many Bollywood films that it’s become a cliché. Can you imagine Kiran Kher or Dimple Kapadia playing Neerja’s mother? Neither can I. That’s why my respect for Shabana Azmi has gone up after Neerja.
This is the brilliance in her portrayal of the mother’s role that I’m talking about -when she hears the news of the hijack she goes back inside the kitchen as if trying her best to ‘normalise’ everything, although the panic is written all over her face. Why did she do this instead of maybe breaking down or starting to visibly panic which is how an inexperienced or a mediocre actor would approach the situation. Because this is what humans do. We turn to the familiar in the face of a crisis.
PS – since I mentioned Milkha Singh earlier, when will Bollywood wake up and realise that P.T. Usha deserves a film too?!