Till Friday, Ghal Kalan village always hosted about 200 to 300 visitors a day, many of whom would come here to catch a glimpse of sculptures, of “inspirational people”, strewn all across its landscape.
Over the weekend, however, 2,300 people landed up at the Moga village, including from far-off places such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Delhi, and no one here is in doubt on the reason behind the sudden surge in visitors. Tucked away in the corner of the village, is a model of Pam Am Flight 73 and the crew member synonymous with the aircraft — chief purser Neerja Bhanot. (Read: ‘Neerja’, an experience of our lives: Pan Am 73 hijack survivor)
Much before Neerja, the biopic on the 23-year-old which released on Friday, piqued interest on her life, Ghal Kalan village had already immortalised the Ashok Chakra awardee, who has been credited with saving over 300 lives aboard the Pan Am Flight hijacked on September 5, 1986. (Also read: Neerja box office collections: Sonam Kapoor film earns Rs. 22 cr. in opening weekend)
And it is all due to the efforts of Manjit Singh Gill (43), a sculptor who left his government job to make statues of “inspirational personalities”, that Ghal Kalan houses perhaps the only memorial to Neerja Bhanot in the country. The 43-year-old is behind all the sculptures in the village that are a tribute, to among other people, former president Abdul Kalam, Milkha Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Dr B R Ambedkar and even victims of the Air India Kanishka crash of 1985. (Neerja movie review: Sonam Kapoor makes us believe she is, was, Neerja)
Of late though, it’s the Neerja sculpture that is attracting the most visitors, he says. “It has been unbelievable. I never imagined that after the film, people would come down to my village and ask for the way to Neerja’s memorial. It is the only memorial in the entire nation built in her memory. I was really inspired by the sacrifice of this young woman when I decided to make her statue in 2013. In the past three days, people have been coming and saying that they watched the film and hence want to see her memorial too. Some even revisited and said that earlier they did not realise what a big sacrifice she had made for the country. Today we had tourists from Tamil Nadu who came here after hearing about Neerja’s story,” Gill told The Indian Express.
He further said that he began working on Neerja’s sculpture after conducting a survey in 2013. “It shocked me to find out that in colleges, schools and other places, people actually knew little about Neerja. Except for a few in Chandigarh, none of the respondents even those in Delhi were able to answer as to who she was. This despite the fact that she was given the Ashok Chakra. Then I studied about design of the uniforms and the airplane that existed that time. It was important to add authenticity to the whole look. The memorial was completed put on display in 2014,” Gill said.
He added that “his decision was also aimed to ensure that the younger generation know who Neerja was and the courage she displayed at an young age”.
Residents of Ghal Kalan are proud that their village remembered Neerja and paid her tributes even before the biopic made her a household name.
Aneesh Bhanot, Neerja’s brother based in Chandigarh, said family cannot thank Gill enough for the memorial. “This is the only one in the country as far as we know. There is one chowk named after her in Mumbai but no memorial. The movie has come at the right time. Youth can learn three things from Neerja: you should be scared of none; you should always do your duty and that there cannot be any compromise on self-respect. We are really thankful to Gill,” Bhanot said.