Nowadays, biopic is the most popular trend in Bollywood or we can say it’s become another genre in Hindi film industry. Continuing the series, Neerja is another upcoming Hindi movie based on Neerja Bhanot, an air hostess and the hijacking. The feature film is releasing very soon and with its released, once again she will be lived in our hearts. Neerja, the bubbly and brave senior flight purser of Pan Am was felled by hijacker’s bullets during the Pan Am holdup at Karachi airport on September 5 1986 – barely 25 hours before her birthday. Neerja was a successful model and very beautiful girl. She was highly talented professional.
Neerja’s parents were journalists in Mumbai. They came to Mumbai (then Bombay) in March 1974, when Neerja was a student of sixth standard. I once read her father’s article about the tragedy which expresses, ‘As terrorists rushed up the letter to “capture” the aircraft, Neerja dashed to inform the captain in the cockpit. The hijackers were part of the terrorist Abu Nidal’s Organization and were backed by Libya. The terrorists then instructed Bhanot 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. Bhanot 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 seat duct so that the hijackers could not differentiate between American and Non-American citizens. After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire and set off explosives.’
A terrorist, however, caught her by her handy ponytail but she was able to shout the “hijack code”. Another flight attendant who got her code transferred it to the cockpit. Obviously, the cabin crew, including the two pursers, did not know the action the cockpit crew takes on hearing the hijack code. It is now known that the 3 member cockpit crew – pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer – slipped away, leaving the aircraft, 400 passengers and the 13 member cabin-crew at the mercy of an fervently surcharged 4 member team of burly terrorists. Since, Neerja was the cabin-crew leader; she took over the “command”, as soon as she found that the three seniors (cockpit crew) had deserted them. Neerja’s notes say that she had to follow up the hijacking warning with 6 steps. In the Karachi situation, she was required to “communicate” with the hijackers. Her smiles, even in deep distress, won a response. She looked after the passengers, within permissible limits. Her smiles were taken as an assurance by the passengers and crew members that the worst was over. The power generator was running out of fuel and voltage was falling. Then “something” happened. Neerja was standing close to the leader of the terrorists. The light had become very dim. Suddenly, guns began vomiting fire within the aircraft. Neerja jumped to the emergency exit and threw it open.
According to Malti Krishnaswamy and other eyewitnesses, Neerja was caught by the leader of the terrorists and shot at point blank. In the dead body, bullets were penetrated in her abdomen, on the shoulder near the neck and in the arm. When she opened the emergency exit, she could have herself been the first to slide down the chute. However, she was the “captain”, who believed that she had to be the last person to quit – alive or dead. The terrorists’ guns silenced only after throwing out the last bullet. The cabin crew got together on the tarmac and found the “leader” missing. Two crew members ran back to the aircraft to find a profusely bleeding Neerja at her post of duty. The shock of being hit by bullets did not stop her heart-beat. She had been bleeding, from at least two bullet wounds, for nearly 15 minutes. However, she was in her full senses and told her 2 colleagues to take care of her bullet-hit arm. With a little assistance, she slides down the chute to be received at the other end by another member of the crew. She was helped to walk to the ambulance. However, she became a martyr before any medical assistance could help her to survive. In the normal course of events, Neerja would have been back in Bombay on that Sunday, September 7, it was her birthday. Instead of that, they collected her coffin from the airport. She died so that others could live, was cremated the following day at 11 a.m. amidst chanting of her favourite mantras as we said “Goodbye darling, please keep coming.” The young model has set a model for her class all over the world.
Neerja was a very sensitive, deeply affectionate and an extremely decent person who believed in sharing with her people all her joys but not the jolts. She had well defined principles and there was little room for compromise in that area. Of the 23 years of her life, she had lived 22 years and 10 months under bracing sunshine. The two month long ugly patch was a dowry cloud. Following her ad-based arranged marriage in March 1985, she had gone to the Gulf to join her husband to set up a happy home. However, the marriage went sour within two months. She was starved off finance and food in a foreign land and the bright girl lost five kg of weight in two months. She had to borrow money from the husband even to make a telephone call.
Before the marriage, it was made clear that it would be a dowry less marriage. Nevertheless, when she reached the “ordained home” she was taunted that even a “very poor man gives something to his daughter in marriage”. She came back to Bombay to honour a modelling contract. An ugly letter followed, listing terms for her return, which no person with self-respect could accept. The letter listed a straight formula: accept the humiliating terms without a whimper and return at your own cost or “we will separate”. The worst was that the letter asked her as to what was she? “You are just a graduate”. The young girl could not pocket this. She applied for a flight attendant’s job with Pam Am. There were nearly 10,000 applications but Neerja easily found place among the top 80. Some of her close friends in Pan Am knew of her marriage mishap. They say that Neerja had been clearly stating that if one day something happened to her, please see that even “his” shadow did not fall on her dead body. The girl with sinews of steel accepted the challenge “what are you” and has told “what she was”.
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