Neerja is a 2016 Indian Hindi-language biographical thriller film written by Saiwyn Quadras, and directed by Ram Madhvani starringSonam Kapoor in titular role of “Head Purser” Neerja Bhanot, while Shabana Azmi and Shekhar Ravjiani played supporting roles. The film was produced by Atul Kasbekar under the banner of Fox Star Studios. The film revolves around the Libya backed Abu Nidal Organization’s hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi, Pakistan on 5 September 1986, specifically focusing on flight attendant Neerja Bhanot who ensured the failure of the hijacking by preventing the plane from getting off the ground, she also saved the lives of 359 hostages in those long hours of incarceration.
For her bravery, the Government of India awarded Bhanot the Ashoka Chakra Award (India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time), and Bhanot became its youngest recipient. The film was released worldwide on February 19, 2016. Critics praised the narration and Sonam Kapoor’s performance.
Neerja was the senior flight purser on the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73 flying from Mumbai to USA, which was hijacked by four armed men on 5 September 1986 at Karachi airport inPakistan. The aircraft was carrying 376 passengers and 19 crew members. The terrorists wanted to fly to Cyprus and wanted to release some of their team members from jail. After the terrorists boarded the plane, Neerja alerted the cockpit crew. As the plane was on the tarmac, the three-member American cockpit crew of pilot, co-pilot and the flight engineer evacuated the aircraft through an overhead hatch in the cockpit per their training so that the aircraft could not be forcibly flown. Neerja, being the most senior cabin crew member remaining aboard, took charge.
The hijackers, Palestinians, were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization and were backed by Libya. The terrorists then instructed Neerja to collect the passports of all the passengers so that they could identify the Americans. The terrorists wanted to put pressure on America by identifying and threatening the Americans on the aircraft. Neerja and the other attendants under her charge hid the passports of the 41 Americans on board; some under a seat and the rest down a rubbish chute so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American citizens.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives. Neerja opened one of the doors, flung open an emergency chute, and assisted passengers from the aircraft. She could have been the first to jump out when she opened the door but she decided not to and was shot while shielding three children from a hail of bullets. From a total of 41 American passengers, only 2 were killed during firing. One of the children, then aged 7, is now a captain for a major airline and has stated that Neerja Bhanot has been his inspiration and he owes every day of his life to her. Neerja was recognized internationally as “the heroine of the hijack” and is the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra Award, India’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace time.
This incident happened just two days before her twenty-third birthday. She actually invited her family to a meet over for her 23rd birthday. This news came out in Times Of India by the Doctor who watched her get shot dead by the terrorists. Not only had she ensured the failure of the hijacking by preventing the plane from getting off the ground, she also saved the lives of hostages in those long hours of incarceration.
The hijackers were told to be from the Abu Nidal Organisation. She also posthumously received multiple awards for her courage from the United States government.
In 2001, Zayd Hassan Abd Al-Latif Masud Al Safarini, one of the hijackers who shot the passengers, was captured by the FBI in Bangkok. He is currently serving a 160-year prison term in Colorado. Four others escaped from Adyala Jail in January 2008 when it was attacked by terrorists. The FBI announced a $5 million bounty on their heads. In January 2010, Pakistani intelligence officials announced that a drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal region had killed one of the released hijackers, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim. His death was never confirmed and he remains on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists and Rewards for Justice Program lists.
Her loyalties to the passengers of the aircraft in distress will forever be a lasting tribute to the finest qualities of the human spirit”.
Ashok Chakra citation.
For her bravery, the Government of India posthumously awarded her the Ashoka Chakra Award (India’s highest gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy during peace time), and Neerja Bhanot became its youngest recipient. In 2004 the Indian Postal Service released a stamp commemorating her.
With insurance money and an equal contribution from Pan Am for using the brand Pan Am in the title, her parents set up the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust. The trust presents two awards every year, one for a flight crew member, worldwide, who acts beyond the call of duty and another, the Neerja Bhanot Award, to an Indian woman who when faced with social injustice such as dowry or desertion perseveres and then helps other women in similar social distress. The award includes a sum of INR 1,50,000, a trophy and a citation.
Postal Stamp released by Indian Postal Service on October 8, 2004, commemorating Neerja Bhanot sacrifice and services to the nation.
Neerja’s brother Aneesh went to Washington DC in 2005 to receive the ‘Justice for Crimes Award’ awarded posthumously to her as part of the ‘Annual Crime Rights Week’ at a ceremony held at the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia. In 2006, she and the other Pan Am Flight 73 flight attendants and Pan Am’s flight director for Pakistan were awarded the Special Courage award by the United States Department of Justice.