I posted the first half, up to intermission, already. The second half is a little harder for me to remember in detail, some pieces kind of blurred together, or were purposefully repetitive. But I will do the best I can. And if I missed something important or put it in the wrong order, say something in the comments.
We come back from the interval to a press conference where the security chief is saying that it has been 8 hours since the stand off started. Which explains how they will handle time, we have been in almost real time so far, even before the flight started, we saw Neerja at the party, then sleeping, waking up, traveling to the airport. We skipped the first short flight between Bombay and Karachi, but that was covered by her flashback during the flight.
Now, over the interval, we have jumped 8 hours. For the second half, we will continue to lose large amounts of time. Which is part of the reason I have a hard time remembering everything! But I will try my best. It also, by the way, is a great technique for giving the audience a taste of how terrifying and at the same time dull the experience must have been for the passengers. A few moments of shocking action, punctuated by long stressful stretches where nothing happened. I know I am going to remember all the shocking action in detail, but I may mess up the order of the sequences and how they lead one to the other.
Back on the plane, everyone is sitting looking a little shocked. There are a few little things we see from the passengers, slight interactions as time goes on. There is a pregnant woman who is walking the aisles with the support of her husband, looking pained (possibly in labor, possibly just severely uncomfortable). There are multiple parents with children, both desis and non-desis, who are all using the same protective posture, holding their children to them. In the middle of the aisle are the couple, the “Goldsteins”, who spoke with her about the magazine, reminding us that the wealthy Jewish Americans who would be the next targets are hiding in plain sight.
Neerja is situated near the hijackers. She is listening them arguing (another scene where you see how their internal dynamic is falling apart), and from her posture we can tell she is actually understanding a little of what they say, even though they are speaking Arabic (thank goodness, I was watching this with a friend who can recognize Arabic and clued me in). This movie is so tight, this is why we had that brief exchange with the French pilot who was teasing her for not knowing enough French yet. She has been trying to improve herself and pick up multiple languages, and therefore can barely understand their Arabic. The hijackers are arguing about what to do, and the young hotheads are saying they should kill another passenger, another American.
They turn to Neerja and tell her to announce they need passports. Neerja gets up to make the announcement, taking it on herself to say that the attendants will be the ones collecting them. And then also takes it on herself to grab garbage bags to use and pass them out to her co-workers. She manages to whisper to one “no American passports”, and that attendant passes it on to the others. This is also, by the way, one of the few times we get a clear shot of the one male attendant. According to Hollywood rules, he should have been the one to be the hero, because he is the only male official left on board. But in reality, he is just as scared and unsure as everyone else, and only Neerja finds the inner strength to take control.
The attendants go down the aisles gathering passports and quietly dropping any American ones on the floor, under chairs, where ever. It’s a weird experience for me, because of course I have an American passport. So just like the characters are sort of jumping and noticing when they see an American one, so I am I, because it looks “right” to me. I don’t know, it somehow brought it home that by “American” they mean, like, me!
It seems like such a stupid plan, these passports are still in plain sight, just slipped to the floor or under chairs. And all the others are collected. So you could just figure out whose passport is missing. Or take another pass down the aisles trying to find the hidden ones. Or make people come forward one at a time to hand theirs in instead of relying on the unreliable attendants. But this is another one of those moments where you have to believe it worked, because it happened in real life, and it worked!
In the movies, and sometimes in the media, we always paint the “bad guys” as criminal masterminds, well nigh infallible, and so on. But the reality is, they are just humans, and as fallible and weak as any human is. So no, the hijackers did not figure out another way to find the Americans. And they did not realize the flight attendants were playing them. They just got mad and frustrated. Khalil, the youngest hijacker, does suspect Neerja. Perhaps because he is young and used to being overlooked himself, he doesn’t underestimate her like the other two do. He grabs her and accuses her of hiding passports, forcing her face into the wall and feeling along her body from the back. In the foreground, we briefly see one of her co-workers feeling the passports she has slipped into her pockets. Neerja was too smart to do that, but if they move on from her to searching others, then they will all be in trouble.
It is also the most sexual feeling danger of the film. He is flinging her body in front of his and feeling around it. Luckily, it feels sexual to his fellow hijackers as well, who pull him off and yell at him not to bother. This is the only time that there is even a hint of an additional risk or concern for the women versus the men in the situation. Again, I am assuming this is based on reality. And I appreciate it. Rather than making it all about protecting her “purity”, or making the hijackers villains for being oversexed, it is just not a factor for any of them.
The hijacker lets her go, because they have a counter-plan. One of the younger hijackers digs through the bag and pulls out a British passport instead and starts calling out the name. No one answers. He goes up and down the aisle, grabbing white guys and holding the photo next to them. No one speaks. Finally, he aims his gun at a random person and orders the passport holder to come forward. A sort of chubby white guy sitting with his kids stands up. It’s a nice touch, he’s not just a coward who didn’t want to come forward, he was worried about his children if he did. And he’s not some big heroic type, he is a scarred looking guy in a Hawaiian shirt, but he still came forward. The hijacker grabs him and makes him kneel. Outside the door, the airport security is waiting. They open and show the new hostage, and remind them that there is a deadline (I think, I can’t remember this particular moment as clearly). Then they close the door and hold the gun on the hostage and call out, again, for a radio engineer. Again, I am assuming this is based on what actually happened, but that is such an odd request! Could they really not figure out the radio without help? And did they really just assume that any flight would have a radio engineer on it? Maybe it’s because it’s the 80s, maybe radios were both more complicated and more common?
(1980s radio. They do look complicated!)
Anyway, the radio engineer with the Rajesh Khanna videos finally stands up and comes forward. Khalil, the young one, hits him over and over again and reminds him that they asked before and he didn’t come forward. He doesn’t even look at Neerja, just says that he was scared, that’s why. The other younger hijacker grabs Khalil and pulls him away and then grabs a random attendant and drags her away too. The radio engineer and the attendant are both dragged up into the cockpit along with the older, most experienced seeming hijacker, leaving the passengers and the attendants alone with the younger and wilder ones.
And break to check in at home! This is the scene I mentioned in my review. Neerja’s mother is talking to her father over the phone. Learning, basically, that it is still happening and nothing has changed. She is sitting upright in the center of the frame. One son is leaning against her shoulder cuddled up to her side as close as he can be while she pats his head. The other is sitting in a chair opposite, so close their knees are touching, leaning forward to study her face, with his hand gripping her knee. Even the costuming supports her power, she is dressed in a bright yellow dress, while the boys are in white and brown. She is the only bright spot of hope for them, her glow is all that is keeping them going.
(Kind of the way Irene Dunne is the center in this still from I Remember Mama)
The dialogue supports this as well, as she is the one who convinces them it will be fine. First they ask what their father said, is there any news about “our Laado.” She says no, but reminds them not to worry, it will be fine. Neerja’s Mom says that before “Laado” was born, they already had two boys, but they could not be happy without a little girl. That it was “hard” for her and for Laado before she arrived (the subtitles and Hindi are not clear, but the implication is that it was a difficult pregnancy/birth). But they both got through it and they will both come through this, she promises. And I am crying again.
The family structure of the two older boys and the younger girl is so important, and that alone tells you so much about how loved she is. I am glad they acknowledged it in this scene, even though it makes me cry. In India, of course, boys are the preferred gender. And two boys is the ideal family. The state encourages “Hum Do, Humare Do” (we too, our too) as part of their family planning initiative. And there is the Ram-Lakshman ideal. For all sorts of reasons, exactly two boys and no more, and no girls at all, is considered the perfect family. Especially within the usual middle-class educated family that we see on film. But her parents didn’t care about society or the state, they wanted Neerja so much that the two boys were meaningless to them without a little girl to go along with. And the two boys were raised knowing that they were okay children, but their little sister was the perfect grande finale, the precious piece that made their family complete. And now, in this scene, we see that so clearly, the way they are barely being held together with her presence missing, that their family is incomplete again. (of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t loads and loads of families in India who love and desire their daughters, just that you don’t usually see them in film or hear about them in the press as much)
Then Neerja’s mother stands up and says she has to go, to run to the market, because she has to buy that yellow dress, Laado will be home soon and wanted it for her birthday. One of the boys immediately says she shouldn’t go alone, he will drive her, and in a different movie it would be because they are trying to take care of their mother. But in this, it is very clear that he needs his mother and can’t bare (bear) to be separated. The other brother goes to follow as well, but is told to stay back and answer the phone, in case his father calls with news. There is just a moment after the other two leave where you see him turning and turning in the room, his arms waving, literally spinning out of control as soon as he loses his mother’s strength to draw on.
Which brings us back to the airplane. The British hostage has a mask over his eyes now and is huddled in a corner by the exit door. Immediately behind him are the 3 unaccompanied minors. They are all sobbing, and we see the one girl trying to comfort the two boys as best she can. Again, in the hard times more often than not, it is the woman that ends up holding up everyone else (earlier we saw the girl being the first one to close the window when the hijackers ordered it, and stopping the boys from opening it again. She has been taking care of them all along). Neerja sees them crying and goes over comfort them. They call her “Didi” and crawl up on her lap. And I think this is when she goes into the final flashback.
She is still dressed traditionally, with the long hair and mild make-up, but she is back home, sitting at the table eating dinner with her family. The table is against the wall, she is sitting along the wall with one brother next to her, and another opposite. Her father is opposite her other brother, and her mother is sitting at the end, but mostly moving back and forth serving food. Their body language is telling, the boys are sort of keeping their heads down and not saying another, Neerja is against the wall, but shifting in her chair, still moving. Her father is keeping his head down most of all, while her mother is moving about, looking at them all, shifting dishes on the table. 3 of these people are staying the heck out of this conversation and leaving it to the women to handle thing between themselves.
There is a conversation going on, but it is mostly Neerja and her mother while the men stay out of it. Her mother is saying that it is too soon to give up, all marriages require adjustment, and usually it is the woman who must adjust, did she even try? Neerja is trying to talk back, saying she doesn’t think it is working. Her brother, the one sitting next to her, speaks up and says “She is never going back.” Her mother leaps on this, says it is none of their concern, it is between Neerja and her husband. Neerja finally gets up and goes over to the record cabinet and pulls out a large notebook. Her father looks like he wants to stop her, but doesn’t. She opens it up and starts to read a letter from her husband to her father. “Your daughter can’t do anything, she can’t even clean, why did you send her to me with so little money, she is not worth it, I need more.” Her brother and fathers don’t really react, but her mother looks shocked. After reading a few more in the same vein, she looks up directly at her mother, and says “I did try! I really did! I cleaned, I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed, and he still didn’t like it.” Her mother comes closer to her, reaching for her, and she continues “Nothing I did, did he like. I kept trying and trying and trying, I did.” Her mother reaches her just as she finishes “that wound on my head when I first arrived, that wasn’t from falling down, he did that.” Just as she says it, her mother takes her in her arms and kisses the top of her head, stroking the hair and kissing it again, and as she cries. The camera has been focusing on the two of them slowly this whole time, and the three men, her brothers and father fade out in the background until we just see the two of them for the final shot.
My friend and I talked a lot about this scene on the way home from the theater. On the one hand, why did her father let it go on so long? Why didn’t he bring her home immediately? Why didn’t her brothers fly there and beat the guy up? Why wasn’t her mother informed? But then, there is so much we don’t know, we just got these few scenes in the flashback. Her brother was pretty matter of fact about declaring that she shouldn’t go back. And her father was surprisingly silent while his wife was talking, letting Neerja respond for herself. And none of the men looked surprised by what she was saying, and they also didn’t try to stop her from talking. And her mother’s eventually reaction was so strong, and tortured.
From what we saw, and from what we know of Neerja’s “everyone else must be happy at all times” attitude, I find it completely believable that her father and her brothers knew part of what was happening, but she made them keep it a secret from her mother. And from what we have seen, I just don’t believe her father and brothers would have thought they had no right to interfere, that it was her husband’s right to say what he liked and do what he liked. Although I do find it believable that, if her father thought she was really happy in the marriage, he would have sent every penny he had in the world to keep her happy. She must have kept the whole truth from even them until after she arrived home, but apparently said something before this particular scene, since they were looking pretty quiet and miserable all along, and they didn’t look terribly surprised by her revelations. Only we didn’t see those scenes, because they didn’t matter as much. What mattered was when she finally broke down and told her mother what happened, confronted her own self-doubts and guilt, and gained absolution.
That memory of her mother comforting her gives her strength now, in the present, as she shifts slightly to hold the children closer, kissing their heads and stroking their hair. They call out that they want their mothers, and we go into a song (I think, again, I am much less secure in this half of the film). We see her mother back in Neerja’s room at home, carefully wrapping the gift, lying on her bed, holding the family dog, looking at the Rajesh Khanna posters on the wall, the face down paperback Mills & Boon romance on the side table, the little altar where she lays the present. She goes to the front of the house and sees a mother with two little kids in school uniforms walking by, then goes back in and pulls out a family photo album. The camera goes in close as she flips through, looking at the same fuzzy unremarkable childhood photos every family has. I wondered at the time if they were real photos of Neerja. Apparently not (although we will see those), because this article identifies at least one of them as a real photo of Sonam instead. I know that is a common thing in films, to use an actual old photo of the actor as set decoration, but in this, it feels a little extra special. That Sonam is giving up her own childhood memories and letting them be sacrificed to make Neerja’s story more real.
(also, this photo is super cute. That’s her cousin Arjun Kapoor sitting with her. Speaking of families/brothers who love love love their girls…)
Song over, I think this is when Neerja makes another big move. She goes back into the kitchen area and starts pulling out packets and putting them on trays, calling the others to help her again. The young hijacker makes a move to stop her, she explains that people are hungry, they just want to give out food. He lets her go by. But as she carries her tray, she has slipped a pamphlet underneath it. They go up and down the aisles, handing out peanut packets. One of the hijackers in the seats makes a move to stop her, the pamphlet is dangling under the tray, barely visible. But he just grabs a packet for himself and tears into it. She makes her way to the exit row, where she leans over and manages to slip the pamphlet to the guy sitting by the door, whispering “read this and watch for my signal.”
Meanwhile, up in the cockpit, the head hijacker is talking to the airport on the radio, giving the radio engineer things to say while he repeats back the responses. It is hot, we see he has taken off his jacket and removed his explosive belt for comfort. The attendant is still stuck up there with them, crouching against the corner. The Chief of Security on the other end is using delaying tactics, saying they are getting pilots from Air France, but it takes time. Again, looking at other hijackings from the same time period, this is a reasonable tactic on their part. Lots of them ended peacefully with negotiations, the hijackers just gave up when it became apparent that all of their demands could not be met. The idea of a hijackers equipped with suicide bombs was new. So even though, in the movie theater, you may have an urge to shout at them “just give them whatever they want to get our people off the plane!” Or “send in the army now and rescue everybody!”, back in 1986 that wasn’t reasonable.
Down below, things are kind of miserable and low energy. Neerja is sitting down, staring into space. By the way, this was the first time I noticed that her lipstick was worn off. Which is a really nice touch, congratulations continuity guys! It would have been really easy to not even think of that, and just make her up the same for every scene. It would have also been really easy to think about it, and decide it wasn’t worth it, after all there is nothing to stop her from having lipstick in her pocket and re-applying, and who would notice anyway? But this is just lovely, to have it be something she cared about and was so careful about earlier (we saw her apply it precisely in the mirror before leaving), that she just doesn’t even think about now. Not like it is “unimportant”, but that this is how people in shock act, she doesn’t have the energy or mental space to think about anything else.
The little girl pulls her out of her reverie by saying that one of the boys needs the toilet real bad. Again, girls are the best! Of course she is the one to notice the problem and ask for help. Neerja gets up and goes to get the boy. They have to walk by Khalil on the way to the bathroom. He yells at them to just sit down. She tries to say that he needs the restroom, but Khalil has lost any patience for her and shouts at her to listen to him and do what he says. He waves the gun at her face and she holds firm, but the little boy loses control and pees in his pants. He asks “Neerja Didi” to forgive him, and she says it is no matter, go back to his seat.
Now, I am trying to remember how it happens here. I think maybe it is something about the pregnant woman standing in the aisle? Something sets Khalil off and he starts going after hostages. The other young hijacker grabs him and humiliates him, saying he knows nothing, he is useless, he should be quiet. It has some weird parallels with the abuse Neerja suffered from her husband, that same humiliation. But he doesn’t have the inner strength to hold up to it like Neerja did. So after being beaten, he stands up and fights back against the other hijacker. Then he runs upstairs to the cockpit, where the radio engineer and the head hijacker are trying to talk to the radio. The Radio engineer is in the middle of a response, and Khalil grabs him, and shoots him in the head. We see the security chief at the airport react to the shot. Back in the cockpit, Khalil hands the speaker back to the head hijacker, then grabs the attendant from the corner and drags her out and downstairs. As the camera follows them, we get a glimpse of the explosive belt hanging on the back of a seat.
Downstairs, he throws her off him and Neerja reaches out and pulls her into a hug, passing her on to her fellow attendants for further comfort. But Khalil isn’t done. He has begun to put things together (again, it takes the youngest overlooked one to realize what the overlooked enemy is doing), and he grabs Neerja and is shouting at her “you made the announcement, no radio engineer! no radio engineer! No American passports! You think you are hero? Big hero? Then sing!” It sound silly written out like that, but the way he is saying “hero”, it has that slightly different intonation that indicates the Indian English usage, meaning “main character in a film” not “person who does heroic acts.” That’s why he wants her to sing, because film heroes sing. It feels completely believable in the moment, that this young man would know Indian film and would think of all “heroes” as people who sing. Neerja can’t at first, even when he puts his gun right up against her forehead, she is too upset and scared. Even when he cocks the gun, she still can’t quite, you can see her throat working. But then she glances down at the 3 kids who are right next to her, watching everything, and you can feel the effort to pull herself together for them.
And I am bracing myself, thinking she is going to sing “Vande Mataram” or something, and I am going to start hysterically sobbing. But no, she sings “Mere Sapno Ki Rani.” Khalil backs off a little and tells her to sing louder. She does, and the camera pulls back so we see the passengers in their seats watching her while she sings. Finally, he lets her stop, and she somehow stumbles to her seat.
I am worried I may have mixed up the order of those two scenes, it may actually be that she sings first, and then he goes up and shoots the radio engineer. But either way, she ends up sitting down after a moment of high emotion, when it became clear that Khalil has lost it and this is probably not going to end without further death. Which is when she reaches into her pocket and pulls out the letter from Jaideep. She looks at it for a moment, and then slowly regretfully unfolds it. You can see her reasoning in her face. I had almost forgotten the letter, but clearly she hasn’t. She promised him she would open it two days from now on her birthday. And all along, she has been holding off on reading it, because she made a promise. But now, she is beginning to acknowledge that it is time to read the letter, because two days from now may not come for her. It’s a lovely letter. He says that he knows she is scared, he knows she is worried, but he loves her so much. And he thinks he can make her happy. So please, babumoshai, marry me. She reads it and starts to cry. And again, you can see in her face that she is crying because this is a wonderful man who wants to marry her and she could have a wonderful life with him, and it’s not going to happen for her. And then she unwraps the little present on top, and it is a little chocolate biscuit/cookie. She puts it in her mouth and takes a tiny bite and then closes her eyes and her face relaxes, and she takes another bite, as a song starts up.
(cookies kind of like these. Now I want a cookie! Writing this is stressful)
And for the first time, we check in on Jaideep. He is in his car, parked where she showed him, staring at her billboard. He is trying to fix the cassette she was fiddling with earlier, so he can listen to her favorite soundtrack, and tears are going down his cheeks too. He puts the tape in the player and looks through the window at the image of her as a bride, quietly sobbing. It is such a small moment, and such a small thing, in the middle of all of this, just one quick check in on her boyfriend after all this time spent with her family. And just one small thought for him from her, after remembering so much of her life with her husband and her mother, but it is kind of more heartbreaking because of that.
Jaideep doesn’t belong with her parents and brothers, he isn’t part of her family yet. And he isn’t a big part of her past, he doesn’t drive her like the memories of her husband, or provide a deep source of strength, like her parents. He is just like a chocolate biscuit, something pleasant and sweet and strengthening, to be saved for a special occasion when she needs that extra source of strength. It is a special kind of heartbreaking for both of them, the thing that never quite turned into all it could be, but was so sweet for what it was.
Back at the airport, possibly because of the death of the radio engineer, the army has finally been called in. They are in a hanger, looking at maps and grabbing guns. Finally, something is going to happen in a smooth and planned manner! Everyone will be rescued!
But of course it’s not going to be that smooth and planned, because nothing has been about this whole thing. Instead, as the hostages and hijackers sit on the plane looking equally exhausted (kudos to the continuity people again, everyone is believably ragged looking in a slightly escalating way every time we look at the plane), the lights suddenly go out. The hijackers scream that the army is coming, Neerja and the other attendants try to shout back that it is just the emergency generator coming on! I think it is at this point that one of the other female attendants is shot in the shoulder. The male attendant reaches out to try to hit the hijacker who fired the shot, and rather than helping, it just adds to the confusion.
This sequence is really amazing, as confusing and impossible to follow as it probably felt in real life, which is what makes Neerja’s reactions so amazing. While everyone else descended into anarchy, while the hijackers were firing wildly, passengers were tackling them, she moved quickly to the exit door and opened it, inflating the slide, and yelling at the passenger to do the same. He grabs the pamphlet she gave him and opens another door, onto the wing, and passengers start pouring out.
(slightly more complicated than this and with no way to get down off the wing)
It is barely lit, and the camera is moving rapidly, but we get several glimpses of various actions. A hijacker tries to set off a grenade but fails (apparently, in real life, they couldn’t see straight well enough and didn’t properly remove the pin. Again, movie bad guys are so much more infallible than in real life). Another one tries to shoot at the explosive belt and misses. The passengers are tackling them, a man grabs one hijacker and is shot. Another hijacker goes down the aisle trying to grab hostages, he reaches for a child and her mother screams and grabs his leg, pulling him down to the ground before he manages to raise his gun and shoot her. The pregnant woman is lying still, her hands fallen, her husband has his head and hands curled around her belly, sobbing, trying to get her to move. Parents are dragging their children to the exit, the attendants are moving around trying to check for passengers and help them out, one of them pulls out the grandmother and forces her down the slide. Another passenger grabs the husband and drags him off his wife’s pregnant body. Out the other door, we see glimpses of passengers holding onto or sliding off the wing as a hijacker leans out and shoots at them before being tackled (in real life, one of the passengers apparently slipped off the wing and was paralyzed for life), and the final image, Khalil bumps into the other young hijacker, the one who tormented him this whole time. He tackles him, crying out, and grabs the knitting needles that fell from next to the pregnant woman’s seat, and stabs him with them over and over again. The criticism and lack of support and insecurity and hatred have finally driven him over the edge
Meanwhile, Neerja is showing all the strength and love that is within her, that has been growing this whole time. She is at her door sending people through. She sends her last colleague through, who is begging her to leave with them, and promises she will in a moment, then gives a last look through the dark smokey cabin and sees the little girl with the two boys calling out for “Didi.” She stumbles down the aisle to them, grabbing them, dragging them to the exit. At the last minute, Khalil rises up from the body of his partner and raises his gun, the kids scream, Neerja turns and blocks them, the bullets hit her body, just as Khalil is grabbed from behind, the commandos are entering, Neerja sends the kids down the slide, and follows. This whole film, it suddenly becomes clear, has been leading to this confrontation, as Khalil is broken down to the vicious scared killer at the heart, and Neerja is broken down to the pure love and strength that is his polar opposite.
Outside, all is pandemonium. There are emergency personal, and passengers wandering looking shell-shocked. You see the grandmother register Neerja’s arrival. The little girl whose mother was shot pulling the terrorist away from her is alone and confused and sobbing. The other attendant who was shot is being cared for. Neerja is pulled onto a trolley and wheeled into an ambulance. You hear the heart monitor beeping, see them hooking blood up to her, and there is the little boy, one of the kids she saved, riding with her, still holding his toy airplane. She raises her hand, and says his name, “Jitin”. Or maybe it is “Jaideep”, I think it is purposefully a little unclear. She raises her hand and gestures for him to lean over and listen to her.
(toy airplane. Looks kind of like this)
And then we cut to her family in their living room. On September 7th, her birthday. They all look just drained. Moving slowly. They are getting ready to leave for the airport, her mother reminds her brothers to lock the door behind them. We stay back in the apartment for a moment after it is empty, and see the dog run to the door and bark. The camera pulls back to show us the outside of the house, with the locked door and the sound of the dog barking inside.
Just like earlier when you really thought maybe the attendant could close the door in time, you think “maybe she survived! Maybe they are going to meet her, and just feeling sad because she is so injured!” When last we saw her, she was talking, getting treatment, it’s possible! It could all still be okay! Their Laado could be coming home again.
At the airport, you see a plane land. In a waiting room, you see a group of similarly sad looking people. You also see Jaideep, in the background, not quite part of their family group but nearby. And then there is a flurry by the door, it opens, and a coffin comes in. And I start to cry. And am crying again writing about it. Her family slowly rises and walks over. Again, Jaideep is with them but not quite with them. The lid is taken off, just to remove any last lingering hope in the audience, and we see Neerja, still in uniform. Her Mom pulls out the wrapped gift, opens it, and pulls out the outfit, gently arranging the scarf around her face, murmuring “you see, mothers don’t forget. I got you just what you you asked for.” The rest of the family are holding on to each other, but her Mom only has eyes for her little girl. The little boy, Jitin, comes up next to her and gently tugs on her dress, asking if she is Neerja’s mother. She looks down, he whispers that he has a message for her. The sound cuts out, so we don’t hear what he says. She nods, and looks up. To see Neerja’s friend from the flight raise her hand in a salute. And, of course, the rest of the crew does as well, followed by the rest of the people in the room, who it is now apparent are the rest of the India based passengers who rode back in the same plane as her body.
Phew! That is so over-whelming! I actually took a two hour break from writing this recap before I could go on. The filmmakers also realized that they had to bring it down a little. We go straight from that to a year later, in a small event room with a flag on the wall with Neerja’s photo in it, and Neerja’s mother standing at a podium in front of it. This is the scene that Shabana said she had the hardest time with, because she wanted to do a good job for Neerja and her mother, and she had to keep doing it over and over again for the multiple camera angles, going back into that headspace. But for the audience, such a relief! No more of that torture of hope. We get to go all the way through to a year later, past all the uncontrollable body devastating grief, to the long-term agony.
Shabana’s speech isn’t actually that emotional. It’s more logical. Laying out the two themes of the film in case you missed them. She talks about how she never wanted a daughter for a hero, that she doesn’t care about the Ashok Chakra from the government of India or all the rest of it (brief glimpse of newsreel footage of a parade and formal presentation from the Prime Minister) that people say Neerja will leave on as a immortal in heaven, but she doesn’t care about that, she just wants to see her daughter again. She says that when Neerja went for hijacker training (again, this was a common occurrence back then, so it was a part of her training and it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for it to actually happen to her), she told her, forget everything they told you, you do what I say, if anyone comes on the plane, you run away. But, she didn’t. And we have the first theme, that this story isn’t about a Hero or how wonderful it is that she can all inspire us, it is about a daughter whose parents wish she had just run away.
And then she moves on, to say that we don’t expect this of our daughters. We tell our brothers to care for their sisters, we tell our daughters to be careful, to take care of themselves. We never expect this of them. But they can do so much more. And, she says, that is why they started this foundation, to recognize women who can do more. And that her daughter is teaching them how to live, just like she did in her last words, the message she sent to her mother, “Don’t cry, Pushpa, I hate tears.” And we have the second theme, that we constantly try to protect our daughters and think they are weak and can do nothing, but in fact they do everything. Even the simple fans of Rajesh Khanna have an inner strength we don’t expect.
The crowd in the tiny room stands and applauds and we recognize other passengers in the audience, as well as her co-workers and brothers and father. And then the slow inspirational song starts up, and we have the end credits. As they roll, real photos of Neerja go along with them, starting with her formal model photos, where she looks like a perfect fantasy heroine. And then it moves on to photos of her at the same age from around the house, making a face while opening the fridge, hanging out with her family in a park. And then a photo of her a few years earlier, in a school uniform. A few years before that, as a little girl. So, not some perfect heroine, but just a beloved daughter of a family that misses her. And finally, a photo of her whole family, brothers, sisters-in-laws, nieces and nephews, parents, from a few years back, with a blow up of her last photo sitting among them, showing the huge hole in the center of their family, even today.
And it’s not until after that photo that the music switches to the more triumphal louder song, the one that encourages the audience to actual stand up and leave the theater. Which is also when the lights came on and people started actually leaving in the theater I was in. Which is the biggest tribute you can have to an Indian film, an industry where most films are structured with the expectation that the audience will barely stay through the finale, let alone the end credits. But for this one, they do.
(triumphal song. I don’t know about the bits at the college campus, but I love the way it works with the movie clips)