EXCLUSIVE : Neerja never discriminated on caste and colours, says brother Akhil Bhanot

I wrote down what all I wanted to ask him. I even rehearsed. I entered his number thrice..and deleted. How would I make a brother feel when I ask him about his sister who has left years ago, leaving only fond memories behind? Affection is one strange thing. It remains so fresh, so intact even when the person is gone forever.

However, I did manage to call him. Mr. Akhil Bhanot, the eldest brother of Neerja Bhanot, answered the call. He has one of those voices; the unfamiliar ones full of familiarity. I now knew I could ask him all.

I asked him the very first thing I wanted to. “Sir, there’s so much of buzz about Neerja. Your sister has taken over so many hearts. How does that feel?”

And damn! I cursed myself inside. I had just asked a brother how he felt about a film which was dealing with his sister’s tragic death. That must be hurtful!

But no, he smiled and answered, “it feels nice, you know? After all, that’s all what we wanted. We wanted people to know about her, her story. That’s finally happening and we are happy.”

I was up with the next question. “The incident took place 30 years back. After all these years, the film is being made. Don’t you think it should have happened a long ago?”

Mr. Bhanot calmly answered how they received so many scripts on Neerja’s story. “My father was completely against it being made into a film. It would turn into business then. We didn’t want that to happen”.

For those who don’t know, ‘Neerja’ has been made in an almost unbelievable budget of 21 Crores, compared to other Bollywood projects. This  was possible because Sonam Kapoor reduced her fees to a large extent. A lot others from the crew have charged very less or nothing. After hearing Neerja’s story, no one wanted to discuss money. The film is not really made for a commercial purpose.

I am curious to know if Bhanots liked the script written by Madhvani from the very beginning. I ask him. “Yes, except one correction on her nephew’s name, we had no corrections to make”, he answers.

-“She died a brave death. Was she always the brave, courageous one since the beginning?”

-“Always. She would do anything without caring much. She usually used to go to college by train. One day, we were going by scooty. Suddenly, she asked me to stop it. A man was beating a woman very badly..he was rather thrashing her. Neerja was furious, she ran towards them and stopped him, saying ‘you’ve no right to beat a woman this way’. Then, the woman backfired at her. She was like, ‘he is my man. He is beating me. It’s our business. Who’re you to interrupt?”. The matter was worsening. I had to intervein. Later when we got home, I told her ‘ You shouldn’t have interrupted. See, she didn’t even acknowledge your help.”.  “I don’t care what she said. It was wrong and I had to protest”- she answered. That was Neerja. She lived with principles. I told her it was tough to survive with ideologies in this world. But she still would stick to them. She didn’t believe in living a futile life. She believed in giving a meaning to life”.

There was he; a brother remembering his late sister with boundless affection. Every bit of what he said was soaked in pride.

“Did she always aspire to be an air-hostess?”, I asked.

-“She did. But she never applied for a job. She was working as a very successful model in Bombay. One of her friends applied for the job and she was called for an interview. Neerja accompanied her. The people there instantly liked her and suggested her to try. She started her career straight with a ‘Senior’ designation.”

I was irresistibly curious to know how they spent their childhood; about all the moments her Brothers have nurtured all these years; the moments they have lived by. “Any special childhood moment you’d like to share?”, I asked.

-“My father was very thrilled when Neerja was born. We were two brothers and he badly wanted a daughter now. He was so fond of her that we used to remain frustrated. It was impossible to knock her down, at any point of time. When we used to live in Chandigarh, behind our house was a nala. We called it Ganga nala. One sudden day we discovered that she was very scared of the Nala! For next two weeks, we kept pulling her leg about it. Afer that, we were back to our old front again. (laughs).

Bhanot’s mother passed away last December. She could not stay back till the film released but she did know everyone was taking pride on what her daughter had achieved years ago. I wanted to know how happy was she. “She was happy indeed. She met the team members, including Sonam.”

I try to imagine how a mother must have felt. Which feeling seemed stronger? The void of her absence? Or the pride and glory she silently showered upon everyone around her? I find no answer; I give up on my imagination. The conversation has come to an end. I shoot my last question.

-“If I ask you to describe ‘Neerja’ in one word, what would that be?”

-“Funloving. She believed in living her life. In an entire life, apart from those 17 hours when she was inside a hijacked flight and two other months when she was very unhappy (Neerja suffered an unhappy marriage), she lived every moment. She was extremely compassionate too. She never discriminated people on religions, caste, colours. Even when she was dying, she thought about others. She was very family-oriented too”.

She remained family-oriented till her last breath, just that she never defined ‘family’ by ties of blood; I say to myself. Who can die for a set of strangers? She could. She knew, no one in this world is a stranger. The moment we come to this world, we are tied with unseeable strings of humanity.

Rest in pride, lady.

P.S. Neerja Bhanot on 5 September 1986 was in charge as a senior flight attendant of  Pan Am Flight 73 flying to the USA from Mumbai. During its scheduled halt at Karachi, 4 armed men representing terrorist group  Abu Nidal Organization entered the aircraft. They were backed by Libya and wanted to create pressure on Africa by threatening the American passengers on board. Neerja, along with her colleagues, hid passports of 41 Americans promptly. After 17 hours, the terrorists set off explosives. Neerja, who could very well escape herself, chose to fight back. She opened the emergency doors and helped passengers escape. After saving 359 lives, she gave away her life while trying to shield three children from bullets. Thanks to her bravery, only two of the passengers were shot dead. 

Neerja remains the youngest recipient of ‘Ashok Chakra’ award, India’s most prestigious gallantry award. She would have turned 23 two days after she died.

Ram Madhvani’s ‘Neerja’ featuring Sonam Kapoor in the title role hits the theaters tomorrow, on 19 February 2016. All we wish for the film is to kindle courage and bravery in each individual soul.