The film opens with 22-year-old Neerja Bhanot (Sonam Kapoor) arriving late for a house party. Later that evening, her mother Rama Bhanot (Shabana Azmi) expresses concern about Neerja's job as a flight attendant, suggesting that Neerja should return to her old modeling career. Neerja insists on keeping her job. She is driven to the airport by her friend Jaideep (Shekhar Ravjiani).
Neerja reflects on her brief, unhappy arranged marriage to Naresh (Kavi Shastri), a professional in Doha, Qatar, who abused her over her small dowry and inability to perform household work. She eventually returned home for a modeling contract. Naresh sent her parents a letter complaining about the dowry and their daughter's lack of domestic skills, demanding that Neerja either bring back money or not return at all. Neerja left Naresh and landed a job with Pan Am Airways.
As Neerja boards Pan Am 73, it is revealed that the Abu Nidal organization, a Libyan-sponsored terrorist group, plans to hijack the plane in Karachi. The plane takes off from Mumbai's Sahar International Airport and lands in Karachi, where the four Abu Nidal terrorists, disguised as security officers escorting a Libyan diplomat, hijack the plane. Neerja quickly alerts the cockpit, and the three American pilots escape through the overhead hatch, fleeing to the terminal under fire from the hijackers. The American pilots had just enough time to escape, as the hijackers did not realize that the cockpit of a Boeing 747 is located upstairs.
When an Indian American passenger reveals himself as an American, one of the terrorists murders him and throws his body off the aircraft in front of the Pakistani negotiators. The terrorists try to locate a radio engineer among the passengers by ordering Neerja to make an announcement over the intercom. When Emran Ali (Shashi Bhushan), a Pakistani radio engineer, begins to stand up, Neerja signals for him to sit down. The terrorists have the flight attendants collect all passports to identify the American passengers and hold them hostage; Neerja and her colleagues collect the passports, disposing of any American passports by throwing them down trash chutes or hiding them under seats. Dejected over not finding any American passports, the hijackers locate a British passenger and hold him hostage.
The Pakistani negotiators inadvertently reveal the name of radio engineer Ali, whom the hijackers bring to the cockpit to use the radio for negotiations. Meanwhile, the Pakistani authorities try to stall for time. When a younger terrorist assaults the passengers and molests the attendants, the terrorist leader chastises him; humiliated, the younger terrorist storms into the cockpit and shoots Ali, screaming wild threats over the radio. While negotiations with the Pakistani air controllers drag on, the negotiators slowly lose control of the situation, with the hijackers becoming more agitated by the minute.
Around 17 hours later, the plane loses auxiliary power, and the lights go out inside. Despite Neerja and the other attendants' attempts to explain, the terrorists assume the Pakistanis cut the power deliberately, and anticipate an imminent Pakistani raid on the plane. The panicking hijackers begin shooting down passengers indiscriminately; at great peril to her own life, Neerja opens the rear door and deploys the chute, directing passengers out of the plane. Choosing to let the passengers escape first, Neerja is fatally shot by the terrorists when she tries to shield young children from the gunfire. The film ends with a tribute to Neerja, who was eventually honoured posthumously with the Ashoka Chakra, India's highest military decoration awarded for peacetime valor, courageous action or self-sacrifice.
Development and casting
Pre-production work on Neerja began in September 2014, when the film's executive producer Atul Kasbekar said that his company, Bling Unplugged, would co-produce Ram Madhvani’s film along with Fox Star Studios. Kasbekar later tweeted, “Do U Know Who Neerja Bhanot Is? No? Well U Really Really Should...”. He said, “For us [...], a story of courage as exceptional as Neerja‘s simply deserved to be told. We just decided that we would our bit to ensure that India would remember one of its great heroines.”
The film's screenplay was by Saiwyn Quadras, and the dialogue was written by Sanyuktha Chawla Sheikh. The director of photography for the film was Mitesh Mirchandani, who had been previously associated with 2012 film Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. The editing for the film was done by Monisha R Baldawa, and Manohar Verma served as the stunt director for the film.
Kapoor was contracted by Kasbekar to play Neerja Bhanot, the senior flight crew member. On receiving the role of Neerja in the film, Kapoor told PTI, "I thought doing this film just reaffirms that it is about not bowing down. It is an inspiring story for me to do. I am blessed."
It was reported in May 2015 that Shekhar Ravjiani, one half of Bollywood's performing/producing duo Vishal–Shekhar, would play a short role in the movie, marking his acting debut. Shabana Azmi played the role of Neerja's mother in the film. In an interview with The Indian Express, Azmi describes her character and explains, "It was very difficult to play her, particularly the last scene where Rama addresses an audience. It is an extremely well-written emotional scene, which does complete justice to the moment."
Filming and post-production
Principal photography of the film commenced 19 April 2015 in Mumbai. After two months of filming, the shooting was wrapped up on 19 June 2015. Kasbekar tweeted, "Amazing! And it’s a wrap on Neerja !!! 32 shooting days!!! That’s Two More days than Birdman took!" During the principal photography of the film, many Bollywood celebrities visited the film's sets, including Vidya Balan, Boman Irani, Anil Kapoor, and Raju Hirani. "I knew that getting Aamir Khan, Boman Irani, Vidya Balan, Raju Hirani and Anil Kapoor to speak to the 220 cast would help instill dedication and effort that this film would require," director Madhvani said in a statement.
The makers of the film acknowledged the responsibility of portraying the story. One challenge faced was acquiring a real plane for shooting; director Ram Madhvani and Rucha Pathak decided to re-create the plane because a major part of the film required shooting against the plane back-drop. It took them 48 days to build the plane, which closely resembled the original one.
The film's visual effects (VFX) were by Tata Elxsi. VCL produced a wide range of visual effects, including the creation of Karachi airport and buildings, and also helped in creating the 1986 period restoration for various locations. Huseini Barodawala, the head of Tata Elxsi, said that “It has been our constant endeavor to leverage our VFX expertise to transform the director’s vision onto the big screen and offer larger-than-life experiences to all our viewers.”
Music rights were acquired by T-Series; the film's music was composed by Vishal Khurana, with lyrics by Prasoon Joshi. The first song from the film, titled "Jeete Hain Chal," was released on January 26, 2016.
The soundtrack received a positive critical response. Mohar Basu of The Times of India gave the music a 3.5 out of 5 rating, saying that it "is beautiful, pensive, touching and all of it sans melodrama," and that it "is straight from the soul." Joginder Tuteja of Bollywood Hungama said that "the songs of the film heard are strictly functional and won't really be into play once the film is through." He added that the songs "Aankhein Milayenge Darr Se" and "Gehra Ishq" would make the most impression. A critic of The Quint praised the music album and said, "The brilliance of this album is that it features songs which will not hijack and/or disrupt the flow of the narrative. The sound is delicate, fearless, vulnerable and always intimate."
The film had a special screening on 16 February 2016 in Mumbai, which was attended by celebrities, including filmmaker Karan Johar; Subhash Ghai; Kapoor’s father, Anil Kapoor; Sachin Tendulkar; Yuvraj Singh; Sunil Gavaskar; Ayushmann Khurrana; and Amit Sadh. The film received a positive response from many Bollywood celebrities, with Tendulkar calling Neerja Bhanot a "Braveheart" and saying that "the people should definitely watch the film."
The film was released worldwide, in approximately 671 theatres, on 19 February 2016. Upon release, Neerja received positive reviews, with praise directed to Kapoor's performance, and was a moderate box office success. The film was also praised by Delhi's Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who tweeted that the film's message was, "Live for others, die for others." The film emerged as one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films featuring a female protagonist.
Neerja was banned in Pakistan since the film shows Pakistan in a negative light. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) maintained that the film should not be considered "banned" in Pakistan because it was not submitted to them.
The film was declared tax-free by Government of Maharashtra and the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
The Finance Minister, Jayant Kumar Malaiya, said, "The movies Neerja and Jai Gangaajal will be free from entertainment tax in Madhya Pradesh on account of International Women's Day which was celebrated yesterday." Producer Kasbekar, replied on Twitter, "Big thank you to MP Poonam Mahajan and the Hon CM Devendra Fadnavis in declaring Neerja tax free in Maharashtra. Quick and decisive decision."
Upon release, Neerja, as well as Kapoor's performance, won acclaim from film critics around the world.
Shubha Shetty-Saha of Mid Day gave the film 4.5 out of 5 stars, calling it "a deeply moving experience", and writing for Kapoor deemed it as "her best performance till date". Meena Iyer of The Times of India gave Neerja 4 out of 5 stars and said, "Neerja raises a toast to the daunting spirit of India's daughters; every one of us must salute Neerja." Bollywood Hungama gave the film 4 out of 5 stars and said, "As a movie watching experience, Neerja is flawless. There's not a single false note." Writing for Hindustan Times, Anupama Chopra awarded 4 out of 5 stars, saying that "Neerja is a truly inspiring story that will grip you from the first frame till the last." Sarita Tanwar from Daily News and Analysis gave 4 out of 5 stars, writing, "Neerja is quite easily the finest film in recent times (on par with Talvar) based on a true story." Raja Sen from Rediff.com gave 4 out of 5 stars as well and called it "an absolute must-watch," adding that "Sonam Kapoor is exceptional as Neerja Bhanot." Suahni Singh of India Today rated the film as a 3.5 stars and stated, "Sonam Kapoor delivered her career-best performance as she assuredly plays an abused wife, a beloved daughter and a flight attendant caught in her worst nightmare."
Rummana of Yahoo! gave it 4 out of 5 stars, stating, "Neerja deserves loud applause because not only is it an exceptional story of courage but because it is an ode to the undying spirit of humanity" and called Kapoor as "the star of the film". The Economic Times also gave a 4 out of 5 star rating: "Neerja is a must-see, not just for its cinematic value, but also as a reminder to salute Neerja's spirit." Rajeev Masand of CNN-News18 gave a 3.5 out of 5 rating and said, "Neerja is "a well-intentioned, heartfelt film that pays tribute to a real hero." Shubhra Gupta of The Indian Express also gave the film 3 stars out of 5, writing that "Minus the songs and the excessive schmaltz, Neerja could have been outstanding. But still, the film holds, and hold us with it."
Manjusha Radhakrishnan of Gulf News rated the film 4 out of 5 stars; while she criticized the terrorists' lack of depth and weak points in Neerja's second half, she wrote that "the climax of the film is powerful and makes up for that blip." Don Groves of Forbes wrote that "the film fetched $626,000 on 73 screens in the U.S., an estimated $500,000 at 41 locations in the U.A.E. and $A117,000 ($84,000) on just 15 screens in Australia, posting healthy per-screen averages." Jason Klein of Variety declared that DAR-Film Leaderboard was notably absent of Oscar-nominated films, but part of the gap was filled by Neerja. Sonali Kokra of The National praised the film: "Neerja is a great story told well. Mitesh Mirchandani’s jerky camerawork does a great job of using the claustrophobic confines of the aircraft to showcase the oppressiveness of the situation and the terror of the hostages."
On its first day, the film earned about ₹47 million (US$700,000) net, much of it from Mumbai, Delhi NCR. It collected ₹76 million (US$1.1 million) net on Saturday and ₹97.1 million (US$1.4 million) on Sunday, with a weekend total of ₹210 million (US$3.1 million).
On Monday, the film netted around ₹37 million (US$550,000), with only around a 20% drop in revenue compared to first day. On Tuesday, the film earned around ₹34.1 million (US$510,000). The film's Wednesday, Thursday and Friday earnings were ₹31.4 million (US$470,000), ₹36 million (US$530,000), and ₹31.5 million (US$470,000), respectively. On Saturday and Sunday, Neerja had a massive jump and earned ₹50 million (US$740,000) and ₹66.5 million (US$990,000) respectively, for a total collection of ₹501.2 million (US$7.4 million) at the box office.
On the 11th day (Monday), Neerja collected ₹21.2 million (US$320,000); ₹19 million (US$280,000) on Tuesday; ₹18.5 million (US$270,000) on Wednesday; and ₹17.6 million (US$260,000) on Thursday. By the end of its 38-day run, the film had grossed an estimated ₹108 crore (US$16 million) domestically and ₹25.9 crore (US$3.8 million) internationally, for an approximate worldwide total of ₹135 crore (US$20 million).
Neerja opened strong, collecting ₹1.56 million (US$23,000) in foreign theaters. The film had the highest opening weekend for a female-led film in the U.S. and Middle East; in the UK, it had the second-highest opening weekend of 2016.