Why you need to watch Neerja and Airlift to learn a thing or two about nationalism
The first two months of 2016 have brought us a surprisingly large number of films with either “Ishq" or “Love" in the title (none of which I have yet seen), as well as adult comedies (plural!) starring Tusshar Kapoor. But there have also been two tightly crafted movies based on real-life events from close to three decades ago: Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, about the courage shown by flight purser Neerja Bhanot during the 1986 Pan Am flight hijack, and Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, about the mass evacuation of 170,000 Indians from war-torn Kuwait in 1990. Both films did a fine job of recreating time and place and, as far as I can tell, stayed close to the broad facts (though the Airlift plot was a highly simplified one, and its businessman-turned-saviour protagonist Ranjit Katyal was a rough composite of two people).
There are differences in the specifics of the stories—one might flippantly note that Neerja is about a group of people badly wanting to get off a plane, while Airlift is about a (much larger) group of people yearning to get on one—but both involve claustrophobic spaces and fear so potent you can smell it in the air. They also contain material that could, in the hands of other writers or directors, have been manipulated in the direction of speech-making about national duty. This is truer of Airlift, in which a money-minded non-resident Indian—who had turned his eyes away from his home country—becomes, to his own surprise, a sort of Oskar Schindler, or even a Moses, for his compatriots.
While watching it, I kept anticipating the big moment calculated to bring a tear to the eyes of those who wear their patriotism on their sleeve (and dreading that there would be a prolonged scene with the national anthem, requiring all of us in the hall to either stand up like obedient sheep or be made to feel like traitors), but though there is a suspenseful moment involving the unfurling of the flag, it is done matter-of-factly; the intimate narrative is put before the grand one.
The Neerja story, you might think, wouldn’t have lent itself to such treatment anyway, but consider the basic plot—an Indian air hostess helps people of multiple nationalities who are stranded on Pakistani soil—and imagine what a fictionalized version could have done with it. It’s notable then that both films, though clearly tempted at times, keep steering away from the big picture. The heroism they depict is from the Frodo Baggins school, beginning in such small ways that you barely register it: A young woman with a turbulent relationship in her past and a love for inspirational dialogues from Rajesh Khanna films develops a kinship with three nervous children; a businessman, making hurried arrangements for his own family to escape, happens to glance at one of his employees—someone he has barely noticed before—who is asking, “What will happen to us?"
In these scenes, one sees how the simple matter of connecting with another person can lead to big deeds; the films are about “ordinary" people discovering new reserves of humanity in themselves. At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh but his earlier Shahid (2013), about the late lawyer-activist Shahid Azmi, was another such film, with a protagonist who fights the good fight not as a superhero but as a flesh-and-blood man who can’t always look his wife in the eye when she confronts him about his responsibility to keep himself safe (much like Ranjit’s wife does in Airlift).
One reason I have been thinking about “small" heroes—people who had little desire in the first place to be heroic, or to be thrust into a situation that required heroism—is because we are surrounded by large-picture narratives these days. In the wake of the Jawaharlal Nehru University arrests, there has been plenty of talk extolling our duties and loyalties towards this huge thing called the Nation, and celebrating an exalted form of heroism of the sort that is tied up to unquestioning allegiance. It includes the idea that war, if you do it in the name of country, is innately noble, almost independently of context. And that questioning the sanctity of this ideal is in itself wrong. Or seditious.
Many people I know admire films like Shahid, Neerja and Airlift because they are “gritty", “understated", “real", and represent another step away from the excesses of older Hindi cinema. But hyper-drama and grandstanding are vital parts of the human condition too, and if these low-key films refuse to give us that particular form of catharsis, then non-fiction TV has been taking up the role with gusto.
Consider the rabble-rousing and dialogue-baazi in the parliamentary-session telecasts. Or the widely watched news-channel show where a veteran army man wept because of the “disrespect" being shown to the national flag, after which we got to hear a solicitous audio recording in the voice of Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani—all of this calibrated for maximum emotional effect, stoking the nationalistic sentiments of people who already subscribed to the view that physical violence in the premises of a Delhi court was a reasonable response to words spoken out loud in a university campus.
As indicated in earlier columns, I have plenty of time for the (well-made) melodramatic film which performs a very different function from the quiet, subdued one. In the current climate, though, with news anchors and politicians doing the declamatory things that Sohrab Modi and his inheritors once did on the big screen, it’s a relief to watch a film about a more tentative, even reluctant heroism that isn’t tied to the idea of one’s country being the best, just because one happened to be born in it, but one that grows to become something meaningful and inclusive. Who would argue that Neerja Bhanot and Ranjit Katyal, as depicted in these films, weren’t in the final analysis great patriots—if that word is to have any worth?
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.