The film recreates the heroic story of flight purser Neerja Bhanot who saved the lives of hundreds of people on board Pan American flight 73 when four armed men dressed as airport security guards stormed the plane in Karachi.
The next 17 hours the plane was grounded on the tarmac with 380 passengers and crew members aboard. While Pakistani airport authorities, police officers and swat teams worked on the ground to identify the terrorists and determine their plans, Neerja helped keep the passengers and the terrorists calm during the crisis.
She was only 23 at the time.
There have been many articles and stories circulating about the film - some challenging how Neerja died. However, the story is less about the events surrounding her death and more about how she lived her life during one of the most terrifying ordeals imaginable.
Neerja's actions alerted the cockpit crew when the hijackers were storming the plane and they were able to escape, leaving the plane without pilots so it remained grounded.
She talked the terrorists into allowing the crew to serve water and snacks for the passengers during the 16-hour standoff.
She protected American passengers targeted by the terrorists by hiding their passports.
When the terrorists began firing late in the evening, she helped passengers quickly escape from the airplane.
She is reported to have been fatally wounded while shielding children from the terrorist gunfire.
Ultimately, she is attributed with saving 359 lives that day.
In the film Neerja, Sonam Kapoor does an outstanding job of stepping into the shoes of the heroine. She is both a victim and a leader and she manages to walk the fine line between the two roles authentically. She is a hero without the heroics.
In a 9 September 1986 Cincinnati Enquirer article Sekhar Mitra, an American passenger on Pan Am flight 73, recounted how Neerja protected U.S. citizens:
"Their leader passed by our seat several times, pointing his guns at us, saying, are you American citizens? Do you have American passports? But before they could be discovered, Neerja, the flight attendant already had covertly gathered all the American passports and hidden them aboard the plane. I still can't believe she did that. If they had found that out, they would have killed her immediately, I'm sure."
The Star, Pakistan's most widely read english-language newspaper at the time, also included a first-person recollection in a 5 September 1991 retrospective of the event. Hussain Shaffi was returning to New York after his vacation in Karachi during Id-ul-Azha holidays:
With the hijacking of the plane, Hussain and the passengers were forced to sit on the carpeted floor. The undaunted Neerja continuously remained on her feet serving coffee, sandwiches and provided for every need of the entrapped passengers that was conceivable under the circumstances; at the same time, she would whisper comforting words in their ears.
While Neerja didn't survive the incident, her name lives on. She was posthumously recognized for her selfless commitment and sacrifice by India, Pakistan and the United States.
Neerja's father Harish Bhanot - played by Yogendra Tiku in the film - was the Mumbai bureau chief of the Hindustan Times at the time of the hijacking. He monitored the story through the various news sources and provided updates to his wife and sons throughout the day. After the event, he wrote about his daughter in a 5 October 1986 story:
Neerja, the vivacious and valiant senior flight purser of Pan Am was felled by hijackers bullets during the Pan Am holdup at Karachi airport on September 5 1986 - barely 25 hours before her birthday. A year ago, she had written to me, "I will do you proud" and the brave girl has kept her word.
Harish and Rama, Neerja's mother, were overjoyed when their daughter was born. They already had two sons and longed for a girl. Harish explains:
It was Sept. 7, 1962 at Chandigarh - where I was posted at that time. The maternity ward matron rang up to inform me that we had been blessed with a baby-girl. I was very happy to hear this and gave her a "double thanks". She thought I had got her wrong and so she repeated "It is a daughter". I explained to her the daughter had already 2 brothers and that is why it was an occasion for "double thanks". Neerja was a "no problem" child, right from day one. She was a "no nonsense" girl right from the start. She went to Sacred Heart School (Chandigarh). Her family name was "Laado" and I do not think I had called her Neerja more than a score of times in her 23 years.
Harish Bhanot passed away on 31 December 2007, leaving behind Rama and Neerja's two brothers, Akhil and Aneesh.
Rama Bhanot met Neerja's cast and crew, visited the set, and gave her blessing to the film. She talked about her daughter, saying:
It's impossible to find a girl like this. I'm very fortunate that God gave me such a daughter. She's brought so much honour to our name.
Rama Bhanot died a few months before the release of the film. Shabana Azmi, who plays Rama Bhanot in the film, explained:
The fact that she blessed the film gave us a lot of confidence but also placed a huge responsibility on us. I feel very sad that she didn't get to see the film.
While Rama and Harish weren't able to see their daughter honored on the silver screen, Neerja's brother Akhil Bhanot had this to say about the film:
Saw the first show of the film and saw it again in the evening. Very satisfied and our main objective of letting the story of our girl made into cinema was clear & what we saw on the big screen was honest and inspiring!
Her brother Anish Bhanot prefers to remember how Neerja lived rather than how she died. In a Hindustan Times article, he explains:
"I was 30 when this incident happened but I don’t like to recall it or even think about it. I remember her as fun-loving, a complete music freak and a joyful person. She had an uncontrollable laugh. This incident was an exception in her life. Her life was not like that. Her life was fun-loving and great."
Thirty years on, there is a whole generation of people who haven't heard of, or may have forgotten, the story of Neerja. This film not only inspires us to do the right thing regardless of the circumstances, but celebrates the importance of focusing primarily on living a big life, not a long one.
Perhaps with this in mind, Fox Star Hindi shared the following about Neerja Bhanot in a series of #KnowNeerja tweets.
In 2015, Artist Manjit Singh created a statue in honor of Neerja which is situated at the Shaheed Park in Moga, Punjab:
The following playlist features the trailer for Neerja, several making of, segments from a 2010 Discovery Channel documentary, the last recording of Neerja Bhanot as a flight purser and an ABC news story about the event.
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