My Mumbai Mirror column today:
Neerja's heroism flows from 'farz', something we have lately forgotten how to honour, in cinema and in public life.
I was wrong. Neerja -- starring Sonam Kapoor as the late Neerja Bhanot, a Pan Am flight attendant who was killed by terrorists during a hijack in September 1986 -- is about heroism, not nationalism. It's about helping other human beings, not caring whether they belong to the same community/race/country as you.
In Madhvani's vision, Neerja tries her level best to safeguard all passengers on her flight. If American passport-holders seem the most vulnerable at one point, she tries her best to shield them; when it is children who need her, she goes to their aid.
In this regard, Neerja's impetus is different from another recent film about an unlikely Indian hero -- Airlift. The two films are premised on strikingly similar scenarios - a group of ordinary people placed in a precarious predicament while outside their country of citizenship, with one among them catapulted by circumstances to a position of leadership.
But Airlift's protagonist takes the initiative to save these helpless people because they are his countrymen. In fact, Raja Menon makes Akshay Kumar's heroism turn on the emotional tug of something called 'the nation', while in fact mocking the procedural inefficiencies and powerlessness of that entity called 'the state'.
Ram Madhvani's film, in contrast, makes its heroism flow from something very ordinary; something we have lately forgotten how to honour, both in our cinema and in our public life: duty. And duty in Neerja is not to an abstraction called the nation, but simply to the responsibilities of your job, to correct procedure. And beyond that, to all human life.
Duty isn't too fashionable an idea these days. Unlike in the days when Hindi cinema was filled with stern-faced police officers doing their duty to their vardi by handcuffing their brothers, farz isn't a word we hear very often now. The law-abiding Nehruvian hero of a previous era had already been placed in a dilemma in the 70s and 80s, by pitting his duty to the law against his duty to family - that division lies, in some sense, at the core of most justifications for corruption.
But in our post-liberalisation times, the idea of simply doing one's job has come to be associated with being boring, playing by the rules rather than thinking 'out of the box'. Perhaps it isn't entirely a coincidence that a film that seeks to recuperate the meaning of 'farz', to rescue it from its stodgy, stick-in-the-mud associations and turn it into something worthy of our greatest admiration, is about an event from the 1980s.
Madhvani builds up his protagonist's believability carefully. Why would an up-and-coming model, already appearing not just on TV advertisements but also on big hoardings for bridal-wear and on the back covers of magazines, stick with a job with terrible timings and a rather fraught social standing?
Shabana Azmi, in an outstanding turn as Neerja's pillar-of-support Punjabi housewife mother, often asks her daughter the same question. The only answer we hear Sonam Kapoor give in the film is the near-banal "I love my job". But by offering us brilliantly-timed glimpses of Bhanot's ugly (and thankfully short-lived) arranged marriage, the film's writers Saiwyn Qadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla produce a powerful sense of what else might have driven this young woman.
To take your work seriously, Neerja implies, is crucial to achieving independence and identity— no matter whether that work is seen as work by others. In one telling scene, we listen to a nasty letter from Neerja's husband, about how no "izzatdaar" (honourable) father would get his daughter to work as a model, and we are forced to think of how often female flight attendants deal with disrespectful male passengers, even today.
But the stand-out dialogue about duty in Neerja comes when the 22-year-old flight attendant's insistence on serving water and a snack to the hungry, thirsty passengers on board earns her the wrath of the armed hijackers. As one of them tries to physically stop her, she looks straight into his eyes and says, "Sir, main sirf apna kaam kar rahi hoon. Apna farz nibha rahi hoon. Jaise aap nibha rahe ho. (Sir, I'm only doing my job. I'm doing my duty. Just like you are.)"
Something truly remarkable happens in this scene. An act of dull, everyday labour is suddenly lit up with the radiance of something extraordinary — and simultaneously, the violent act of the terrorist-hijacker is, for one infinitesimal moment, charged with a sense of duty. However reprehensible his means might be, Neerja manages to suggest, the terrorist's ultimate goal is one he considers moral.
In a film that otherwise displays little doubt about its heroes and villains, this is a rare moment of rupture, a chink in the wall. But dialogue can only take place across such a chink. It is only by insisting on humanising those who seek to dehumanise us that any war can ever truly be brought to an end.
Published in Mumbai Mirror.