The identity of Neerja Bhanot was just confined to the small tube in the 80s, when she was a model. Her face was plastered on newspapers and TV because of the various commercials she modeled for. But her life took a turn when she boarded the Pan Am Flight 73 to New York in the wee hours of September 5, 1986.
A model by choice and a flight attendant by profession, Neerja was like any other 22-year-old girl. Little did she know that her extraordinary courage, that made her stand tall between the passengers and terrorists on that fateful flight, will make her a real-life hero and earn her the title of the Hijack Heroine.
Neerja, now soon to arrive on the big screen, is the story of an ordinary girl with extraordinary courage. And first-time director Ram Madhvani has roped in actor Sonam Kapoor to bring the incredible story of Neerja Bhanot on 70mm. Ram Madhvani’s Neerja is slated for a February 19 release.
The filmmaker says there couldn’t have been a better choice than Sonam to play the role of Neerja. “Sonam was actually our first choice for the film. Only after she would have said a no, would we have approached some other actor for the titular role. We had Sonam very much in mind while writing the script of the film because Neerja has certain qualities that Sonam also has. Both the women are family-minded. Moreover, there is a certain kind of energy about Sonam. And from all the people that we met, including the family, we sort of understood what her character and nature was. It wasn’t that the role was righteous for Sonam. It’s not that that you keep in mind while writing the script. You know that you write what you need to write, what that character is. And then, you know at the same time that Sonam is the right person to play this character,” says Madhvani.
Though a lot had been written about Neerja back in 1986, not many know what that brave girl went through during those gruelling 16 hours on the plane. Despite eyewitness accounts and reading material, it was a tedious and stressful job for Sonam to capture that fear for the screen. But the filmmaker says that the Prem Ratan Dhan Payo actor gave her best to understand the nuances of the character.
“Sonam has gone through workshops, air hostess training and she has emotionally given herself off. Of course, we know a lot about Neerja and her character, but eventually we don’t know what she felt like when she was on that plane. Because nobody knows. We know what happened, we can find out from other people what they feel she went through, but eventually we don’t know. And at the end of the day, we have to go out there and play that part. As a human, she must be scared because that is what we can understand. I cannot understand bravery and courage. I do understand fear,” adds the filmmaker.
He further says, “Neerja was the last one to get off the plane. She did follow the motto – do your duty, come what may. And she took that responsibility of being the captain. Because she was the captain and she was the head person. And she did many things that saved many lives. And while she did it, she must have been extremely nervous and scared and yet she overcame it. Yes, Sonam gave herself emotionally to the role and she was under stress to play the part.”
Neerja Bhanot saved the lives of 360 passengers on that flight. She, posthumously, became the youngest recipient of India’s highest civilian award for bravery, the Ashok Chakra, for showing incredible human courage during the hijack. In addition to the Indian government, Pakistan and the US too decorated the girl with their bravery medals.