Is fiction losing its fizz for Bollywood’s filmmakers? Is reality more dramatically engaging, and emotionally fulfilling, than purely fictional stories spun out by the Bollywood factory? Those fed up with the sameness of 90 per cent of films can jump to the conclusion that the formula has run dry of new ideas, as the storytelling art hits arid ground. Things, especially in cinema, are never that simple. Neerja and Airlift don’t mean that only reality sells – critically and at the box office. Fictionalising elements are necessary – in varying degrees – to dress up reality to engage viewers, many of whom may be addicted to the packaged reality shows on TV. Only the really naïve believe that these reality shows are not scripted to keep up with fickle TRPs.
Just think back to the pioneering No One Killed Jessica. It was neither a documentary nor a mockumentary. Director Rajkumar Gupta called it “a hybrid of fact and faction.” Instead of the Tehelka journos who pulled off a sting operation to expose the politico who bought off the key witness, actor Shayan Munshi, the director created a brash, go-getting, sexually open, F-word using TV journalist in Rani Mukherjee as a contrast to the quietly plodding foot soldier Sabrina Lall (Vidya Balan), who doggedly pursued her sister’s killer, trudging along Delhi roads to police stations and courtrooms.
Much earlier, in 1999, came Vinay Shukla’s Godmother, which ran into controversy. A particular community in Gujarat contested that the film’s feminist heroine, Rambhi Ben (Shabana Azmi), who takes over her murdered husband’s political role and refuses to be a puppet, was a thinly disguised portrayal of Santokben Jadeja. Shukla maintains that his script began as a story of a Bombay underground widow, who ran her husband’s illegal hooch business, but since there wasn’t enough material, he changed his protagonist’s location to Porbunder and made her a skilful politician, who enjoyed the power game before communal riots roused her conscience. The Dirty Picture was again based loosely on Silk Smitha, but fictionalised large chunks of the story.
So, this underlines the fact that the scriptwriter’s craft is essential. Even a film based on a real event and real people has to have a narrative arc that brings out the protagonist’s character, his/her interaction with the particular situation central to the story, and this demands the scriptwriter’s skill. Let me not go into the tricky terrain of how all stories – even those on the outer edge of fantasy – are based on some variant of reality. Imagination springs from reality, with the exceptional gift of transforming it.
Superficially, the answer to the question posed at the beginning seems to be a tentative yes, going by Neerja and Airlift – not just the films by themselves but our diverse response to recreations from the recent past. The intervening years may have dimmed our precise recollection of the Pan Am highjack in Karachi and the evacuation of Indians stranded in Kuwait following Saddam’s invasion of this small, rich country. Reality presented with its core drama intact – in different degrees in both films – has had a big impact. Neerja moves us to tears with its calibrated, fine-tuned emotional drama – yes, even a blasé critic – while Airlift’s synthetic manipulation of patriotism leaves me cynical. Both films are well-made and have tremendous logistical problems to overcome. The common theme is how the unexpected heroism of a single person triumphs over a traumatizing dilemma, saving hundreds of people caught in a dire life and death situation. But the commonality ends here.
Ram Madhvani is a superior filmmaker, with a finely honed script. Unlike the Kuwait evacuation of thousands, against tremendous odds, which has not had a long public memory, Neerja Bhanot’s story has been kept alive by her family. Her journalist father, Harish Bhanot, and spirited mother Rama kept their brave daughter’s memory alive by instituting the Neerja Bhanot Bravery Award, more so during the immediate years after her death. The challenge for Madhvani is to dramatise an event well-documented by a taut script (Saiwyn Quadras) that lets us into Neerja’s troubled past of an abusive marriage, by juxtaposing the past and the immediate present at the right emotional moment.
The editor Monisha Baldawa’s skill comes to the fore: the clips from Neerja’s days in Doha, when she was married to an abusive chauvinist, are just the right length, with telling close ups of a vulnerable young girl cut off from her nurturing family. Just as she found the resolve to get out of this abusive relationship, she finds the courage to think on her feet, emerging from the plane’s toilet after splashing water on her ravaged face – at least, as ravaged as Sonam Kapoor allows it to be. In a situation where there can’t be conversation with her colleagues – the other airhostesses – gestures and body language have to be eloquent. To give her due credit, Kapoor manages to do this most of the time, even as she is the target of the maniacal terrorist Khalil (Jim Sarbh), who has a propensity to brandish his Kalanishkov, threatening to shoot at the slightest provocation.
The terrorists of the Al Nidal group have their plan completely upended because Neerja manages to alert the cockpit crew of the highjack. The Pan Am manual demands that the pilot and his immediate crew escape through the overhead hatch. This effectively leaves the situation in Neerja’s capable hands, even if this is her first flight as chief purser. The cutaways to the tense family in Mumbai are minus melodrama, as Rama (Shabana Azmi) maintains a middleclass Punjabi matriarch’s equivalent of the stiff upper lip, wandering through the compact flat telling herself everything will be alright. The father (Yogendra Tiku), waiting for scraps of information to come through the teleprinter, is stoic and heartbreakingly inarticulate. It needs a solid actor, sure of his craft, to match up to Shabana.
If there is one criticism, it is the film’s inability to convey the passage of 16 hours of the nerve- racking claustrophobia inside the plane. With over 350 people, the director can only convey a broad spectrum of the emotions churning through them collectively; there is only so much that you can individualise. The three kids travelling unaccompanied, a pregnant woman and an old lady whose grandson is the first casualty… they are given their two minutes of screen time. Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani captures both the depth and details of a closed environment in panning shots. Madhvani wisely keeps to the Hitchcock dictum – when an audience has more knowledge than the screen characters, they will be more engaged and emotionally implicated.
The songs are in the background, except for the opening party scene, where Neerja brings a staid society do alive with her joie de vivre. The Bhanot family all share Neerja’s endearing fan worship of Rajesh Khanna and befittingly, the film lives up to Anand’s famous line:zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin. You wish, though, that the Rajesh Khanna reference did not crop up again in the long scene dedicated to the mother’s grief and pride, as she ruminates over her Laado’s life. The kid from the plane at the memorial passes on Neerja’s last message: Pushpa, I hate tears. Totally corny and totally avoidable in an otherwise sensitive, moving film that brings a huge lump to your throat and leaves you teary-eyed.
In a similar real-life genre is Hansal Mehta’s moving Aligarh. Mehta is in a different league altogether, on the stunning evidence of Shahid. His stories ask disturbing questions and take us into depths of social and political realities not attempted by others. He is beyond fitting into trends.