This is a really really good movie. And also a really really sad movie. In a kind of gently hopeful way, but still very very sad.
The acting, the peaceful message, the uncontrollable sobbing, all of that I was expecting. But what I was not expecting was how feminist and female focused it was. They really did a remarkable job of showing the value of the female perspective and involvement in the world, and how toxic an all male environment can be. Fascinating!
All of this starts with our heroine, of course. She is most definitely a woman, a normal woman. She loves Rajesh Khanna, and she loves her dog, and she wears lipstick and fingernail polish. She is the baby of the family, the one everyone calls “laado”. But she is also a divorcee who chose to leave her husband, and she loves her job, and she is good at it. She doesn’t fit into the “noble martyr who only cares about high ideals” mold. And she doesn’t fit into the “so sweet and simple and innocent she never even thought about or realized her danger” mold. And she doesn’t fit into the “basically a man, always angry and strong and fighting” mold.
It’s the last that I find so interesting. So often, our female heroines are changed so that they react in a “manly” fashion. Attack, rather than defend. Use anger and dominance instead of calm and passivity. Go down fighting, instead of protecting.
I don’t know if it is the constant social conditioning, or something innately different between genders that leads to this. But the fact is, if I am watching a movie and the bank robbers storm the lobby or Magneto takes over the train station, my first thought is “Where are the children? Is anyone upset? Hurt? How can I help them?” I always relate to the random extra in the background sheltering children with her body much more than our hero in the foreground who is punching people. I can’t even imagine having the urge to hurt people, but I constantly have the urge to protect and care for people.
Through out this film it is the protection and defense that works, while the attacks fail. In small ways, over and over again, Neerja tried to keep things calm, to keep people happy, to do all those things that women are trained to do since birth. And behind her, over and over again, we see the same thing happening among others. Even in the group of 3 children, two boys and a girl, the girl constantly takes the lead, comforting the others. A grandmother tries to protect her grandson, a mother grabs an attacker by the leg and drags him off her child, and back home Neerja’s mother provides the support for her entire family. There is a telling shot at one point. Both her older brothers, who in another film would have been shown to be the strong ones caring for their mother, have gathered in close to her, hand on her knee, head resting on her shoulder, while she sits upright, leaning on nothing.
And if you watch closely, you can see that the terrorists, the all male group, are the ones slowly descending into infighting and chaos. I don’t think this movie is saying that women should run the world (although it couldn’t hurt!), and I definitely don’t think it is saying that man are evil. But it is saying that women have a place, a powerful place, in supporting and protecting society. And it is acknowledging that it is always the women who do the worst jobs and take the biggest responsibilities. Whether it is a “stewardess” taking charge when the pilots abandon the plane, or a mother being the strong one for her grown sons, or a little girl comforting two boys who are no younger than her.
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Rajesh Khanna shows up in this film constantly, even though this is 1986 and Amitabh was King. Amitabh is mentioned only once, when a character asks Sonam why she keeps giving him Rajesh tapes, even though he prefers Amitabh. Sonam ignores the question, because clearly she prefers Rajesh!
Rajesh Khanna hovers over every scene, her boyfriend calls her “babumoshai”, Rajesh Khanna’s posters paper her bedroom at home, she quotes Anand, Aradhana, and Amar Prem. His dialogue even provides her dying message (no, it’s not the one you are thinking of, it’s the other one). But the biggest Rajesh Khanna moment occurs in the middle of the film.
This is also the biggest moment showing how Neerja is not your typical Indian film hero, just in a skirt. The terrorists have just figured out that she has been undermining them all along. They put a gun to her head and taunt her, asking “are you a hero? a hero? Then sing!” But she’s not a “hero”, the kind of film hero who beats up the bad guys and then sings a triumphal song. She’s just a girl, so she cries and whimpers and doesn’t want to. It isn’t until he cocks the gun, and she sees the children near by sobbing in fear, about to witness her death, that she is able to find the inner strength to actually sing something.
I, in the audience, also crying and whimpering, was dreading what she would sing. I was expecting “Vande Mataram” or “Om Jai Jagadish” or something similarly touching and triumphal, perfectly calculated to wring even more tears from the audience, something that we can all relate to and which has an inborn deeper meaning. But instead, she sang “Mere Sapno ki Rani”.
She isn’t a deep and noble person who turns to faith in moments of crisis. And she isn’t a strong “hero” who can sing without worries in any situation. She isn’t even a character in a movie, calculated to act in the way most able to pull tears from the audience. She’s just a girl who likes Rajesh Khanna because that is the actor that young girls like and she is a young girl.
She is a young girl like any other, and young girls like any other all have the strength in them to do what is needed. And this is why we have the flashback track, the parallel story that runs along with the hostage situation. On the way to the theater, my friend and I were debating whether they would address at all that Neerja wasn’t an innocent young girl living at home, she was a divorcee. It irritated me in No One Killed Jessica that they rubbed some of the rough edges off of the real Jessica Lal. They made her seem a little younger than she was, a little less experienced. I was anticipating the same thing here with Neerja’s divorce; after all, it was a marriage that only lasted a few months, they could easily have ignored it entirely.
I thought they were going to do that at first. There is a brief comment when she leaves the house, her parents regretting her previous marriage, and that would have been a fine acknowledgement of that part of the character’s life with no need to go into any further detail.
But then, in the middle of the highjacking, she starts flashing back to her life with her husband. And it’s not used to fill in backstory, or to make her into a victim, or make us relate more. It’s used to show that she has already had her metal tested and come through it. That surviving this 20 hour standoff was not actually the hardest part of her life. That the worst thing she has been through was an abusive marriage, and that the bravest thing she did was to leave it.
Which brings me back to Rajesh Khanna! Here we have a girl who loves Rajesh Khanna. Who has a Mills & Boon romance open next to her bed. Who wants a new dress for her birthday and gets embarrassed when her big brothers tease her about her modeling career. And normally society would dismiss her as shallow, untouched by life, only acting like that because she hasn’t grown up yet. But, she has grown up. Right from the first time we see her onscreen, she is already a survivor. And we shouldn’t judge the things that give her strength or how she acts.
In a bigger sense, we shouldn’t judge any young woman who enjoys romances or soap operas or pretty clothes or anything else that is supposed to be frivolous and useless. Not because they may have the potential to be the heroines of a highjack. But because it is entirely likely that they are actually the survivors of domestic violence, abuse, harassment. And judging them for the items that give them strength, or how they choose to look, or act, or live, is just making it even harder for them to do what they need to do.