Ram Madhvani’s Neerja is one of the most talked about and unanimously well-received Bollywood films in recent times. Although there have been a handful of detractors, especially among the real life friends, colleagues and survivors of the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73, who have claimed the film to be overly fictionalized, the film has already successfully posited itself in the dubious place otherwise known as “the hearts of the people”.
Keeping in mind the above points, let’s take a look at the film from a slightly different perspective. It’s true that this space is dedicated for ‘cinema reviews’. However, it might be a healthy idea to step out of comfort zones once in a while and engage in discussions, even if the nature of discussion in itself turns out to be a great source of discomfort. The subject in question is a Bollywood film, which has become something of an everyday element for people in India. We have become as used to it as the dinner cooked in our kitchens. Over the years we have learned to accept and appreciate its familiarity without breeding the proverbial contempt. And without mincing words, one has to admit that over the years, Bollywood films, Neerja included, have acquired a certain standardized quality in all the technical departments of filmmaking and can be at par with the mainstream cinema from anywhere in the world. Of course, there are good films and average films and films which are bad, even within this production machinery. But it’d suffice to say, without going into the details that Neerja resides somewhere in the rows of better than average films, nearer to the good ones, in terms of technique.
Having said that let’s set aside the reviewer’s concerns and instead raises some questions and dwell on them. One of the fundamental questions would be, why choose an incident that took place 30 year ago, about Muslim terrorists hijacking a plane where an Indian woman lost her life? Indeed, the incident is both tragic and thrilling, but why now when there is a Hindu right wing party in power and the country is perhaps more divided than any time since independence?
In fact, the next question almost follows from that; who is Neerja Bhanot? And the question concerns the film, of course. Cinema with all its power and influence can never claim to reach the truth. So the question of the real-life character is a redundant one. She lived and she died and now cannot be touched. At best, there can be enactment and imitation. After all, as Jean Luc-Godard put it, cinema is a fraud. It is beautiful but a fraud nonetheless. So let’s take a look at the woman we see in the film. She is young, she is beautiful, she is spirited and she is an UPPER CLASS HINDU girl from a conservative family in North India. The image of her mother clad in a shade of saffron and her religious spirit cannot be overlooked so easily.
Now that the introduction with the victim is complete, it is the turn of the perpetrators. And here’s the trick…we don’t get to know them! The hijackers in the film are a set of cartoonish gun wielding psychopaths who’s only identity in the film, as highlighted by their look, attire, language, gesture and elaborate rituals, is that they are MUSLIMS. They are uncouth, they are violent, they are sexual predators and they are coming for your wives and daughters! It is not a question of tolerating or condoning violence and the resultant deaths. Taking a life is a criminal act. But the terrorists who perpetrated the crime on 5th September 1986 belonged to the Abu Nidal Organization. Who was Abu Nidal? Why don’t we get to hear his name? Why is the entire history of struggle of the Palestinian people, with political, social and economic motivations, completely obliterated and replaced with superficial religious identities that have no connection with history whatsoever? There is no doubt about the graveness of the crime perpetrated on the passengers of Pan Am 73 including Neerja Bhanot. But the film commits a crime on history and people, which is no less grave!
On hindsight, what remains is a three-decade-old tragedy that resulted in the death of a bright, young woman. It was the end of her life, her hopes, dreams, everything. She was an independent minded person who loved the very idea of life and in a cruel twist of fate; she had to die for it. And then there is this film which looks back at the incident, takes enough liberties with facts which reveal or rather betray, a careful design aimed at one thing; instilling communal hatred and xenophobia.
Arup Ratan Samajdar