Neerja (2016)

MV5BYzMxM2EwMzctOWUzYy00ZTNkLWE3ZjYtYjI5NWUzZTMwZDAwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE0MDc0NTM@._V1__SX1217_SY543_It is early in the morning of September 5th, 1986. If you had booked this flight, Pan AM 73, likely you were unhappy about the departure time, but since you’d bought the ticket, you had no choice but to be prepared for the 4:00 AM takeoff from Sahar Internationall Airport which was Bombay’s primary international airport at that time.

The flight was scheduled to stop in Karachi, Pakistan, then Frankfurt, Germany, before heading on to JFK Airport in New York.

The film is called Neerja, and was released just a few months ago in mid-February. Neerja is a reference to Neerja Bhanot who was the head purser on Pan Am Flight 73.

As the film opens, we are going to see, via cross-cuts, two separate and ongoing events occurring in real-time. The first is to introduce us to Neerja, played by Sonam Kapoor.

She is a lively and spirited woman, just 22, with a birthday just a few days away. She’s been working with just some success as a part-time model doing print ads and TV commercials, and she has navigated her way up the ladder for Pan Am. This flight, Pan Am 73 will mark her first flight as Chief Purser.

She was more than that. She had left a horrendous marriage because her husband had verbally and physically abused her as they lived in Doha in Qatar. This was noteworthy as most Indian brides do not return home from a difficult marriage.


While Neerja’s mother, played by veteran Indian film actress Shabana Azmi, was not thrilled by her daughter’s breaking of tradition, Neerja’s father called her heroic.

Meanwhile, in Karachi, we watch as a small group of terrorists also prepare for Pan AM 73. Their plan was to dress and pass themselves off as Pakistani Airport Security. They intended to board the plane from the tarmac, then in a classic high-jacking, meaning at gun-point, force the pilots to take them to Cyprus where they would barter the lives of the passengers and crew in exchange for the release of their countrymen from a Cyprus prison. Though we didn’t know it at the time when we met them, they would turn out to be Palestinians rather than Pakistanis.

Well, we stay with the concurrent stories. Neerja is loved by her family, and is wonderful with kids. The terrorists strap on their gear. Neerja is driven to the airport by her current boyfriend. The plane is boarded in Bombay. Counting passengers and crew the total is 379 people aboard the flight.

Pan Am 73 departs Bombay on time, and an hour and half later touches down in Karachi. Soon enough, the terrorist are on board brandishing weapons. Eventually, the news reaches India. Azmi, as Neerja’s mother calls her husband to tell him that she has had a ‘sinking feeling’.

The husband and father, Harish Bhanot, played by Yogendra Tikku, gives his wife, the bad news.

The rest is, as they say history.

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Girl Rising: Day Three at the IIFA in Tampa, Florida

Ruksana was a small child, living with her parents, on the streets of an unnamed Indian city, They were so poor that they hadn’t a proper home, instead they lived behind and below plastic sheeting, and corrugated cardboard, and pieces of wood or bits of tarpaulin. Life in this city was described by the narrator (speaking as an adult Ruksana):

This place teemed with life. With so many people each going their own way like thousands and thousands of different rivers.

As poor as they were, Ruksana’s parents sacrificed what little they had to keep her in school. They deemed that an education was the only chance for Ruksana to escape from the endless chains of poverty that go on for generations and generations in some parts of the world.

Then later, when urban planners, government ministers, city health inspectors, and private developers put their heads together, the shanties, and street dwellings came down. The people were displaced under the guise of urban renewal.

Now the narrator spoke again in the voice, or thoughts of a young Ruksana:

With thousands and thousand of rivers, we are now adrift.

It was a heart breaking moment. The narration for this particular segment was made by Indian actress Priyanka Chopra. What’s more, this segment also included another famous voice, that of Liam Neeson.

The film is called Girl Rising and it is the story of nine girls from Peru to Nepal, from Sierra Leone in Africa to India, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Haiti. Their stories are remarkable.

Here’s a description of the film from the website

From Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins, Girl Rising journeys around the globe to witness the strength of the human spirit and the power of education to change the world. Viewers get to know nine unforgettable girls living in the developing world: ordinary girls who confront tremendous challenges and overcome nearly impossible odds to pursue their dreams. Prize-winning authors put the girls’ remarkable stories into words, and renowned actors give them voice.

The voice actors included Anne Hathaway, Priyanka Chopra, Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, Alicia Keys, Selena Gomez, Salma Hayek, Cate Blanchett, Chloe Moretz, Kerry Washington, and Liam Neeson.

To say the film has impact is just being truthful as well as being an understatement. As we hear in the film in the voices of some of the girls portrayed: I am change. I am my own master now. I feel as if now I have power. I feel I can do anything.

Said another way: One girl with courage is a revolution.

And from the trailer: There comes a film – about changing the world – one girl at a time.

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I Went Shopping For Robert De Niro: The IIFA Opens in Tampa

I picked up my press credentials for the IIFA yesterday. If you don’t recognize the acronym, it stands for International Indian Film Awards, and with full sponsor heading it becomes Videocon d2H IIFA Weekend. But in reality, as in plainer English – It is the ‘Oscars’ of India, the 15th annual such event. Last year it was held in Macau, this year in nearby Tampa, Florida.

When I picked up my photo ID badge, I was told that I was the first person who had shown up and requested the press ID badge who actually appeared on a list of accredited journalists and whose badge was actually there on the table. This was at about 5:15 PM on Wednesday the 23rd. For that, I will thank Lizel Noronha and Michelle Rocha (of WizSpk) for their efforts. And all of that took place at the Tampa Downtown Hilton Hotel.

Day Two’s first event was a Business Forum at the Tampa Convention Center. Rather than sit in on that, I directed my feet to the glorious and ancient (it was built in 1926) Tampa Theater. The theater is notable for its exquisite design which includes indoors a city skyline and a starry sky overhead. If you must know, it is all stone, alabaster, paint, and lights, but when you sit under it, in the orchestra section, you really do think you’re under the night sky and stars.

2014_4$largeimg224_Apr_2014_133759957The event was called the IIFA Film Premiere & Workshop with Anupam Kher. Mr.Kher is one of India’s most noted actors. He was introduced as India’s Dean of Acting and India’s Bible of Acting. Mr. Kher was there to give his film a World Premiere. This new film is entitled – I Went Shopping For Robert De Niro.

Before we get to that, there were two short films shown. Directed by a brother and sister, Arosh Sarkian and Sabrina Sarkian, the two of them used their Film school skills to make interesting and moving films about life and death.

The first was entitled In Search of Dreams, and the second, Spice for Grandma.

In Search of Dreams was about an 8 Minute short film. An elderly woman interacts with her husband. He seems to come and go. There’s a reason for this – he’s dead, What we are seeing is from within the mind of the wife, who is dealing with advancing Alzheimer’s.

The second short was about the mother of an 7-year-old daughter. She cannot bring herself to tell this young girl that her grandmother has passed away. So she brings the daughter to her father’s home, and leaves it to him.

When the young girls asks, Where is Grandma, the old-timer points at the sun and says, You see that sun, Grandma has gone at least that far.

The point of the two films is that death and disease are universal, Both films were quite well received by the crowd. We were later told that nearly 800 people were in the auditorium which hold only 400 plus. I think that was a bit of an exaggeration.

Among the notables in the house were Shabana Azmi, who was once the reigning queen of the Indian Parallel Cinema back in the 70’s. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a current star of what is called India’s Independent Cinema. I just saw this actor in The Lunch Box, which is playing in cinemas in the US these days. Also on hand was Ritesh Deshmukh, a talented character actor. Finally, Anil Kapoor, the superstar actor with 117 film credits to his name. He appeared in the Tom Cruise thriller Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.Or you might know him when he appeared for a few seasons on 24.

Okay, back to I went Shopping for Robert De Niro. Kher has long been a fan of De Niro who to Kher is the epitome of an actor with skilled craftsmanship, the ability to make any character come alive, and to thrill audiences everywhere.

Mr. Kher with De Niro - For Press

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Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Let’s start with a wealthy landowner/financier who we will call Harry Mandola, who imagines turning most of land in Mandola, a village (named after his family) in the state of Haryana, into a sprawling center of development including an industrial park, retail malls, and residential apartment towers also known as housing for the necessary labor and support business people. To accomplish this, the locals would have to sell their land to the government at decidedly bargain basement rates. If that fails, the government could acquire the land via foreclosures (which we shall call economic terrorism), or by underhanded activities such as scare tactics (which we shall call emotional terrorism), or outright criminal activities.

Once the corrupt state government has the deeds to the land, at the stroke of a pen, the land will be deemed a SEZ (Special Economic Zone) which is just another way of saying – we are now open for business. Then, via what will be almost assuredly be rigged bidding, Mandola will win the developmental rights, meaning he will put up the complex, over charge the government, and then kick back money to the corrupt State Minister.

The corrupt government official, Minister Devi, calls it progress for ‘the good of the country’, Mandola, the landowner/financier calls it a win-win. The rest of us call it coercion, extortion, and … white-collar thuggery, and we wonder if India has an equivalent to our own RICO statutes. That’s what’s going in Vishal Bharadwaj‘s film Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola which opened world-wide on January 11th, 2013.

The title refers to the three principal characters of the film. Mandola is the crusty and crafty gazillionaire who likes money, and as we will find out – he really likes to drink. Matru is his man-friday, factotum, majordomo, and right hand man whose main function is to make sure that Mandola doesn’t wander too far off course while under the influence of the liquid spirits. Bijlee is Mandola’s daughter. She’s a New Delhi college graduate who also studied at Oxford, in the UK. And, in case you were wondering, she’s not only brainy, she’s also beautiful.

The film has two other characters of importance. The aforementioned government Minister, and her adult son, Baadal, who, in something that can only be called an arrangement, is engaged to Mandola’s daughter Bijlee. The underlying reasons for that merger, sorry … marriage, are that the Minister wants to her son to marry into the wealthy Mandola family especially since Bijlee is Mandola’s only heir. And Mandola himself, has made his own daughter available as the proverbial ‘cherry on the top’ to make sure his business deal goes through.

So on the surface it looks like a win-win for all concerned. Except for the villagers. Except for Bijlee, who is any thing but the proper daughter.

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15 Park Avenue

Every so often I watch a film and it creates a series of thoughts in my head and I don’t mean thoughts on how I shall review the film. The film called 15 Park Avenue is just such a film.

First this Park Avenue is not the one that immediately comes to mind in New York. While that Park Avenue is a real address, it is also a street of dreams signifying a world of achieved success. But even that thought might be considered wishful thinking. I mean is everyone with a Park Avenue address guaranteed happiness and well being? Of course not.

The Park Avenue of this film is not even a real street. It is where an adult woman believes she lives, with her husband, and their five children. Only she has no husband, or children, and the street doesn’t even exist – except in her mind.

Aparna Sen is the director of 15 Park Avenue. She has woven an exquisite  tapestry with this film. The subjects of the film are sisterly and family relationships, schizophrenia, and the absolute hardship of living in the real world, when your own life takes place in an imagined world.

The film is set in and around Calcutta (now Kolkata) with a lengthy interval in Bhutan.

Konkona Sen Sharma is Meethi who suffers from schizophrenia and epilepsy. While she has exhibited signs of difficulties in socialization since she was a child, she was able to graduate from school, get a job, and function in the world. She worked as a journalist and she had a fiancee. That was 11 years back. But in flashbacks we learn of a traumatic event that happened back then.

Konkona Sen Sharma as herself (l) and as Meethi (r)

She is now in her late twenties or early thirties. She lives with her elderly mother, a housekeeper, and her older sister and is dependent on them for her care. The older sister is 19 years older than Meethi. In fact they are only half sisters.

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