Cover Story

Neerja was a Hero!

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Sonam Kapoor walks into St Regis Dubai in ironed straight hair and the cameras click into life. Her biopic Neerja based on the life of the 23 – year old Pan Am 73 airhostess Neerja Bhanot who was shot dead by hijackers in 1986 has garnered a lot of attention. She asks me about my story where I interviewed a Pan Am 73 survivor, then 12 year old Khanjan Dalal (interview link online Reliving the life of a hero, bonding with Neerja’s family and being a daughter to the late Neerja’s mother – Sonam has been through various emotional rides through the making of the film.

In conversation with Manju Ramanan.

It is a story that needed to be told. Here was this woman who was 23 years old, who was a successful model, who could lead an otherwise cushy life showed exceptional presence of mind and saved the lives of 538 passengers on board the ill fated Pan Am 73 that was on its way to the US, via Karachi and Frankfurt. Three hijackers barged into the plane when it landed in Karachi and took the plane hostage. For her bravery, the late Neerja Bhanot became the recipient of the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest honour. And she was revered and lauded by Pakistan and America as well. She is a real hero.

At 23 years of age Neerja had great presence of mind. When she found out that the plane was hijacked, as head purser, she shouted out the hijacker’s code. The pilots escaped from the hack otherwise the hijackers could use the plane as a bomb – there would have been a 9/11 then. With the pilots gone, the plane couldn’t take off. Neerja was responsible to ground the plane. She was exceptionally beautiful. She used her charm to request the hijackers to serve food to the passengers. When she realized that they were after Americans, she hid their passports and saved so many lives. As the aircraft ran out of fuel and was enveloped with darkenss after 8 hours of being grounded, she opened the emergency exits. She could have been the first to jump out, she didn’t.

I am dying to know how was your interview with artist Khanjan Dalal, the 12 year old boy whose mother was in the same flight with him and who died protecting him, what did he say? He has done a couple of pieces on Neerja that we are going to exhibit when the film releases.

Neerja’s mother Rama aunty guided me throughout my film. Though she told me that her daughter was prettier. She used to call Neerja ‘laado’ and started addressing me that way as well. Neerja was the youngest child of the family – a daughter that they wanted always. She was compassionate and beautiful and extremely loving. The mother couldn’t bear her loss and even tried automatic writing. The sad thing though is that Rama aunty passed away 2 days before the trailer launch. I broke down during the launch because the lady who helped me reach to Neerja’s character wasn’t around. It was as though she had found her daughter in me before she died. I met her grand daughter late when I went to give away the Neerja Bhanot award for bravery during Lohri.

Why would anyone want to shoot children? When passengers were jumping off the plan, she realised there were some unaccompanied minors – Indian American kids. She went to get them when the hijackers shot at her. She was frail and her frame couldn’t hide all of them, so she stood blocking them by bending over them when two bullets were fired on her. She was the last one off the plane.