It’s my first meeting with Neerja director Ram Madhvani. The setting is his office in Santacruz, Mumbai. After a chat with his wife who has worked with him on Neerja, I meet him. I tell Ram that I admire his work as an ad filmmaker, and that he is on my Facebook. To which he says that he’s not on social media! So, there’s another fake FB account. Well, why aren’t you on social media, I ask. If only to promote Neerja, tweet the trailers and songs? “Do you think it’s important?” he asks, “There are so many people tweeting – Sonam Kapoor is tweeting, Sachin Tendulkar is tweeting, Aamir Khan is tweeting about Neerja. Nobody wants to hear from me.” Well, that’s modest! Also Read - Sonam Kapoor’s Birthday Wish For Swaru: 'Can't Wait to Celebrate Once This is Over'
As we begin to talk about Neerja the film and Neerja Bhanot the brave flight purser on Pan Am Flight 73 on whose story the Sonam Kapoor film is based, ‘Some of the questions might be repetitive for you, and some new’, I tell him, ‘but we still have to ask them’. “Some of my answers will be repetitions, too. There’s not too much one can say,” he quips with a laugh. And yet, Ram Madhvani has revealed a lot of things about the film’s making and his subliminal connection to Neerja Bhanot in this exclusive interview with India.com. Excerpts: Also Read - After Anushka Sharma, Sonam Kapoor Turns Hair Stylist For Anand Ahuja During Quarantine- Watch
So, how did you think of making a film on Neerja Bhanot? Also Read - Aamir Khan Donates to PM CARES Fund, Maharashtra Relief Fund And Wage Workers of Laal Singh Chaddha For COVID-19 Fight
Atul Kasbekar (photographer and talent manager) is an old friend of mine and I’m grateful and really indebted to him. He called me about two-and-a-half to three years ago and even before that he’s been wanting me to do a film, as he wanted to turn producer. We’d been discussing various projects and he suggested a film on Neerja Bhanot. Before that, the writer of Mary Kom had asked Atul whether he would be interested in doing it. So when Atul asked me, I immediately said yes because, Neerja would’ve been the same age as me if she were alive. She was a model. I didn’t know her, but my wife’s closest friend was in school with her. My partner Ayesha Sayani was shooting an ad with Neerja the day the hijack happened, when she came home and left for the flight.
As I got to know things about Neerja, and also I was one of the few people who knew what had happened because we grew up in that era when the incident happened. We had read about it; it was not forgotten – it was part of my consciousness. To a lot of people, Neerja is a part of their subconsciousness but for me it was my consciousness. So, I said yes for the film and then we worked on the script. ALSO READ: Neerja will be an important film in Sonam Kapoor’s career: Shabana Azmi (India.com Exclusive)
Did you need an approval from Neerja Bhanot’s family before you began the film? How was it meeting her mother Rama Bhanot?
We met Neerja’s family in Chandigarh with Sonam Kapoor, when Sonam had conceptually said yes. It’s amazing that they trusted us. I met Rama Bhanot, the mother who expired two days before the trailer launch of Neerja. Very very spirited lady. She blessed us and made sure she came for the shooting. I would have loved her to see the film. That’s the one regret I have. She had blessed us with the words, “Jeete raho, mast raho, khush raho.”
But she did approve of Sonam Kapoor, right? There was a story that said she likened Sonam to Neerja.
Yes, upon seeing Sonam, she said, “Dekho, Laado aa gayi gharpe. Waapis Laado aa gayi.” (Look, my sweetheart is home. She’s back.) They have been very hands off and supportive. We’d been calling up Neerja’s two brothers Akhil and Anish Bhanot to know things like what kind of music she listened to or what kind of books she read.) So, the film is not their version.
Did you always think about Sonam Kapoor for playing Neerja Bhanot?
Yes, Sonam was our first choice and if she had said no, only then we would’ve looked at somebody else. She is somebody who not only looks like Neerja but is also family minded like Neerja. Sonam also comes from theatre and we talk the same language, the same kind of cinema. You can see from the trailer of Neerja that she is in the moment, in the zone, and she’s given off herself.
Did Sonam also go through workshops?
Yes, she went through air hostess training and other workshops. She’s pretty good at these things.
Contrary to what people say about Sonam that she is a fashionista and nothing more…
I find Sonam hard to define. People put her in boxes. She’s done all kinds of roles and she’s been around. When I meet her, she is opinionated. She has a sense of humour. She is also somebody who is seen to have a fashion sense. You can’t narrow it down….
Will Neerja win Sonam Kapoor accolades and awards? Is it one of her best performances?
It will be presumptuous of me to say that. It is for you to decide – you are the critic. I’m not selling the film. (ALSO READ: Neerja Bhanot: This Facebook post by a foreigner about the brave flight attendant will break your heart!)
Did you feel any connection with the late Neerja Bhanot or her spirit while making the film?
Yes, because I feel the film is blessed. Whenever we had a problem, it was being cleared. There is some force that is out there that is helping the film. I would’ve liked to have met Neerja if she were alive. Now, I think both the mother and Neerja are there.
That’s a great feeling to have. A confidence booster.
I’ve had that feeling for the last two years now. And it’s grown stronger and stronger and stronger. I genuinely feel there is a force out there clearing things for us and making things happen. It’s a belief system that is there. It’s like faith.
When you see Neerja the film is not the family’s version, what kind of cinematic liberty did you take? It’s a true story and a tragic one at that, so you can’t really…
Whatever’s there in the film, she had done (or that actually happened) – that is part of recorded history. And that’s why she got the Ashok Chakra and so many awards. She did hide the 41 American passports, she did open the door, she saved three children and the 359 passengers.
All this when the pilots ran away…
That is part of protocol. It would’ve been worse if they hadn’t run away. They didn’t go as cowards, but just did their job. If you’re given a hijack code, that is what they must do. Supposing if the pilots hadn’t escaped, the terrorists would have forced them to fly and crash the plane, that would’ve been even more dangerous. It was the terrorists’ objective to take the plane to Cyprus in exchange of the release of some prisoners there. Another theory suggests that they wanted to crash land it. So, what the pilots did was the right thing.
What’s the level of research you did for the film?
We had researched a lot. I’m very interested in research and portraying the truth.
How to show hijack drama effectively on film? Everything can’t be shown through scenes, sometimes it’s just the actors’ expressions…
The passengers went through the ordeal for 16 hours. You have to capture that feeling on screen. You cannot show everything that they went through in 16 hours, but you have to capture the feeling of being there. And eventually you have to make the audience feel that. As a filmmaker, I’m very interested in trying to get to portray some reality. The truth. Because, people can smell it when you are dishonest.
So how do you get to do it? Portray the truth?
I have ’10 rules to get to truth’. You share those rules with the actors, with Shabana Azmi ji, with Sonam Kapoor, with the 250 passengers (actors). Then, you do workshops. There are certain processes you undergo. We are in the business of feeling. How do you capture the energy? That’s the reason why we are filmmakers. But there are these laws that we do have.
Are there any biopics made by other filmmakers you feel couldn’t capture the right spirit?
No, unless you know the person or have known them, how do you know if it was captured unless you were there? The passengers of the Pan Am flight will know. When I’m watching Captain Philips or Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi, how do we know? Did Ben Kingsley capture the spirit of Gandhi? From all reactions, he did. We could see it in his eyes. But whether there is factual truth, psychological truth, emotional truth – we don’t know. You may get one but not the other. We are interested in getting it all.
We wonder how today’s generation will take to a Gandhi. How do you think they will find Neerja’s story?
She was 23, and she was scared. We are all scared. She goes out there and she does something that other people say is brave. As a 23-year-old, how do you face your fears? Or at any age, for that matter. Whether you’re scared of dogs or whatever it is that you are scared of. This is a girl who went through a very scary experience and faced her fears. And she died. ‘Do your duty, come what may’ is what her Ashok Chakra citation says.
But at its heart, Neerja is a mother-daughter story. It’s an inspirational and motivational film about how you overcome these things. So, yeah, my son is 25 and he will definitely want to watch this film. I have done the ad ‘Har ek friend zaroori hota hai‘ – I know how to talk to the youth. It depends on how it’s done.
Any particular scene in Neerja that has turned out well?
The foundation pillar of Neerja is my passengers – all 250 of the artistes. It is what they gave… When we were shooting, I got Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani, Anil Kapoor, Dia Mirza, Boman Irani to speak to them. The mentors used to come and speak everyday about what the cast’s responsibilities are in the scene, what really happened that fateful night, etc. All of the passengers are featured cast. No known faces there – we chose from 10,000 people. We video tested them and held workshops for them. These are the 250 people whom I am very grateful to, as they are really the backbone of the film. So, whenever I look at the passengers in Neerja, I feel ‘My God, look at the incredible work that they have done’.
So they are as important as Sonam Kapoor in Neerja? The actors who played the terrorists also went through workshops we guess…
Very much. Sonam has done very good work and so have the people who played the terrorists. But my foundation is formed by the 250 passengers. They have given me everything. I want to hold a screening for them. My featured cast are very special to me. And yes, the actors playing the terrorists had lessons in Arabic to get into the zone.
Watch Aamir Khan and other actors train the cast of Neerja:
Do you have an opinion on today’s different level of terrorism? Not al-Qaeda, but ISIS? Why it’s happening, etc.?
Neerja is about the Abu Nidal mercenary organization. When innocent lives are at stake, it weighs heavily on my heart. Whether it’s the Munich massacre, or the Paris bombings or Charlie Hebdo…there are all kinds of religions and faiths. I have not quite understood why these acts happen.
After this chat with Ram Madhvani, we have made plans to book tickets for Neerja for the entire family. How keen are you to watch the film?
Ram Madhvani photo by Shweta Parande for India.com.