Ram Madhvani based his biopic on the life of Neerja Bhanot, a braveheart who also happens to be the first civilian recipient of the Ashok Chakra for her role in saving the lives of 359 passengers aboard the hijacked PanAm flight on September 5, 1986.
Of all the great things the movie teaches us, feminism is the most prominent. Instead of assigning ‘masculine’ characteristics to the woman protagonist, the film showcases a very feminine character who emerges as the hero in a time of crisis.
Neerja is neither the story of a strong woman and her heroism, nor is the character a study of a flawless or heroic personality. Ram Madhvani’s film is the story of an ordinary but bubbly air hostess who – when faced with a terrifying situation – overcomes her fears to save the lives of hundreds aboard her flight.
The character of Neerja – played by Sonam – loves modelling, is cautious about her looks, and relishes the small joys of life. Much like your typical girl-next-door, she doesn’t delve deep into philosophy or care a lot for big theories.
Neerja’s life also has its dark patches of disharmony and disturbance. When her husband turns abusive, she tries her best to play the ‘ideal wife’ – receiving blow after blow at home but hiding the scars from her parents. It’s only when Neerja suffers serious injuries that she takes her father’s advice – neither do wrong nor put up with wrong – and walks out of the marriage.
A heart-wrenching monologue by Neerja’s mother Rama, played by Shabana Azmi, is probably the best piece of advice we can get on bringing up our children – especially daughters. Humbly admitting that she never “taught Neerja to be a hero”, Rama says: “Humare mein bhaiyo ko veer bolte hain. Veer ko behenein rakhi bandhti hain taaki wo unki raksha karein. Beheno se to koi nahi kehta raksha karne ko. Maine use kabhi nahi bataya, pata nahi kaha se usne sabke liye jeena seekh liya (We always term our brothers as warriors. Sisters tie rakhis on the wrists of these warriors, so they feel obliged to protect. Nobody asks the sisters to protect them. I never asked her either, don’t know where she got that from).”
Much has been said on the matter, but it still isn’t enough. We need to redefine gender roles and tell our daughters that they do not have to be the only ones sacrificing for the sake of family. Nobody – neither husband nor lover – should be the reason for her loss of identity.
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The author tweets @swetakaushal