Producers Atul Kasbekar and Shanti Sivaram Maini of Neerja, in conversation with Team Box Office India.
Box Office India (BOI): Welcome to Bollywood…
Atul Kasbekar (AK): Thank you!
BOI: How did this project come about? Did you always want to get into film production?
AK: No, it was a logical progression from talent management because we were on the fringes of closing deals for people, being on the sets a whole lot, looking at edits and figuring out whether the heroine had a good entry song or not. So when this opportunity came, I thought it was a good one to take on, at various levels. One, at a personal level, I am generally attracted to strong women and stories about strong women. I am also the co-founder of MARD with Farhan Akhtar. Sonam (Kapoor) has been a client for a while and this came to us from Saiwyn (Quadras), who is my partner Shanti’s (Sivaram Maini) friend. I read the seven pages he had with him and I think I was one of the few people who remembered who Neerja Bhanot was. I was studying in the US when Pan Am 73 was hijacked and because it was an American carrier, there was plenty of information about it over there. Then, it just died down; one fine day, there was no more news about it.
On another level, it bothers me that… there is a famous saying which goes, ‘Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.’ You know, you can’t forget your heroes. For instance, at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, a large plaque reminds us of the historic incident that took place there. We tend to forget our heroes and, we tend to forget our heroines even more, which is extremely bothersome to me.
Shanti Sivaram Maini (SSM): Getting into production was an extension for us. This project happened at the right time, now when we look back it’s like it was meant to be. Saiwyn Quadras (screenplay and storywriter) is a good friend and he gave me the idea to make Neerja’s story. Atul and I got in touch with her family and met them to obtain the rights officially. We then spoke to Sonam and she immediately agreed. Atul and Ram go back a long way, and when Atul met Ram for the film it was an immediate ‘yes’ as well. We then started working on the script together, which took more than a year.
BOI: How challenging was it to make this film?
AK: It was very difficult. I thought to myself that if I am doing film production, and with 20-odd years of goodwill as a photographer, making them look good, I was sure I could put together something that was a simpler story. So, if we say, ‘Let’s make a film which will cost more than Kahaani or more than Khoobsurat or more than most of the other female-oriented films, and headline it with Sonam and Shabana Azmi, and we’ll take a new director who has never done a Hindi film,’ the first reaction would be, ‘Are you mad, it is not a logical thing to do.’
But if you take a family of four to a cinema hall, it costs Rs 2,000 after you pay for over-priced popcorn and parking along with the tickets. Earlier, people watched movies at the cinema every week but people now think twice before spending Rs 8,000 on films every month. So you have to give me a very good reason to go to the theatre because my options for visual entertainment are many. Which basically brings us to making a script which is effectively… the term Ram (Madhvani) and I were using was ‘actor proof’. It could never be ‘director proof’ but let’s make something that, on paper, is so good that the first response of anyone who reads it is, ‘This is terrific, let’s make this movie! By the way, who is the actor?’ According to us, that’s how it should work.
We are no experts but we thought this would be a good way to approach it. We were talking to Sonam for some time. We told her we thought she should do it because it is not in her general nature do song-and-dance routines. She is one of the best-read people I know, she has actually read every book you can think of. She is one of the few people who would treasure a book autographed by the author. At some level, she is very cerebral. Worst case scenario, what would happen if she messed it up? That’s happened to everyone before. But if we get it right, maybe we will really get it right. She agreed and we ran the seven-pager by her and she loved it. We told her we were developing the script and would get back to her. She met Ram and they hit it off well.
Working with Ram is delightful. I have always believed he is a genius in what he does but nobody else had figured that out till February 19. We also have a lot of mutual respect and trust. So he knows I have his back and I know he has mine. My job, as I saw it, was to create a cocoon around the director and provide him with whatever he needed. Even when he was talking with Shabana, I would leave them alone. It is a sacred connection between a director and his actor, and they needed to have each other’s trust.
My test for a Hindi film is, did you look at your wristwatch while watching the film? I think most of our films could do with 15 minutes less, so Ram said no more than two hours, 10 minutes. Secondly, no matter what, we would not go over-budget. So we ended up under-budget, which is rare, and four days ahead of schedule. We finished shooting in 32 days with one day of patchwork.
SSM: This film has been very special, Ramaji’s (Bhanot) blessings made sure all our challenges somehow disappeared. There was meant to be an indefinite industry strike which could have stalled our film badly, but luckily that got called off. We were able to finish three days ahead of schedule.