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Neerja Bhanot Was A Team Leader, Not a Lone Heroine!

There's a new Bollywood movie out, 'Neerja'. It's heroine, played by Indian actor Sonam Kapoor, is Neerja Bhanot, an Indian Pan Am flight attendent who gave her life while executing her duties as a flight attendent on a flight which suffered an attempted hijack by Palestinian terrorists. Neerja Bhanot's grace under pressure and heroic behaviour, like alerting the flight crew of the hijack, thus enabling it to escape (and effectively disablimg the plane) and hiding the passports of US citizen passengers to save them from being singled out by the terrorists, has won her accolades and awards from three countries, Pakistan, USA and India. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I am told by my son, who has, that the story totally focusses on the story from Neerja's point of view.  It shows her grit and determination, going back to her modelling career and joining the airlines after her arranged marriage collapsed. Although she was only 23, her heroism is undoubted and was witnessed by many passengers on that fateful day. Everyone in India now knows that Neerja stayed on the plane until the last passenger left and suffered several bullets at point blank range for her pains. It was tragic that her young life was cut short.

Neerja Bhanot was a beautiful young woman who also took on modelling assignments. The film has been produced in cooperation with her family. Actual photographs of Neerja have been used as publicity for this movie and a few days prior to the its release, the last recorded announcement Neerja made has also been used as publicity. It's truly awesome to hear Neerja Bhanot welcoming passengers on board and acquainting them of the details of their soon-to-be-airborne flight. No doubt, Neerja's beautiful photographs, perfect diction and heroic reputation has piqued a lot of people's curiosity. The film is deservedly a success.

But in the run-up to the film's release, something was bothering me, something just didn't feel right. I know what it was now. On a Facebook thread a few days after 'Neerja's release, a woman, claiming to have been a fellow flight attendant on the same flight, expressed her dissatisfaction with the movie, claiming that it gave Neerja Bhanot 'undeserved adulation'. She was joined on that thread by several others who appear to have been cabin crew that day too.

While the Bhanot family, Neerja Bhanot's two elder brothers and late mother, got to give a lot of input into the movie, it appears that the flight crew of that ill-fated Pan Am flight were not consulted about anything to do with the hijack experience. If this is the case, then I'm not at all surprised that the surviving flight crew members feels that the movie is closer to fiction than reality.

Neerja Bhanot (or rather, Neerja Mishra as she was originally reported to be, probably because this must be her married name) was the seniormost flight attendant on board and carried out her duty faithfully until her last breath. However, the movie's claim that she single-handedly saved the lives of 340 people sounds like exaggeration gone crazy. The truth is that there was a team behind Neerja Bhanot that day and that team seems to have been forgotten by modern India.

That team, consisting of several people with names like Nupoor, Sherene, Astrid, Sunshine and Massey and probably others also, worked together that day to keep the passengers safe and sound. During the long hijack ordeal, they cooperated with the purser, Neerja Bhanot, obeying her instructions in informing the flight crew of the hijack, hiding the American passports, serving the coffee and sandwiches and staying alert throughout. When the terrorists started showering bullets, I'm sure they must have been there along with Neerja, cooperating in evacuating every passenger. There must have been several evacuation points on that plane.

When Neerja's team reassembled outside and realised that she wasn't there, they went inside to get her and found she had been fatally hit. They got her out but unfortunately, she expired before she could get medical treatment. Neerja Bhanot's heroism, professionalism and devotion to duty has been recognised in three countries and her place in history is assured.

But her fellow crew members have been totally forgotten. And that is wrong.

Neerja Bhanot was a heroine. But there was a team of  Indian cabin crew with her who were, in my humble opinion, no less heroic.They have been entirely forgotten. That is a shame.

Neerja's colleague probably made an unfortunate choice of words when she spoke about 'undeserved adulation' and brought the wrath of the masses down on her head. She probably sounded like she begrudged Neerja Bhanot the credit which is her due. But I felt her pain. I think I know where she was coming from.

My own sister is a trained flight attendant with an unblemished record of over twenty years on an international airline. From the little I know, I would say that Neerja Bhanot did what she was trained to do, unfortunately losing her life in the process.The rest of the cabin crew seemed to have proved themselves too. They were all rewarded with permanent jobs by the airline. There is no telling of the trauma they must have suffered from that experience.

All the cabin crew on that fateful day were heroes. They all put their lives on the line for their passengers. They should have all been awarded by the government of their own country, if not by Pakistan or USA.

It is well documented that Neerja Bhanot put the lives of her passengers before her own. I think she would be very sad to see the way her cabin crew has been ignored and forgotten.


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