Screenplay writer Saiwyn Quadras and dialogue writer Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh discuss their recent hit, Neerja with Soumita Sengupta
Soumita Sengupta(SS): What led both of you to this project?
Saiwyn Quadras (SQ): The idea came to me when I was shooting Mary Kom. I was wondering what my next film should be and this incident popped up in my head, where an airhostess had saved the lives of so many people and been awarded the Ashok Chakra. I looked her up and learnt more about her. I know Shanti (Sivaram Maini, the producer) very well and I knew they managed Sonam Kapoor, so I approached Shanti with the script. She took it to Atul (Kasbekar) and he liked the concept. It was just a five-to seven-pager at the time. Then Atul approached Anil Kapoor and Sonam, and she liked it and asked us to start working on the concept. Atul got Ram Madhvani on board. Ram got a researcher on board. And that’s how the whole project got rolling.
SS: You’ve said you already had Sonam in mind but did you have a director in mind too, someone you thought could give life to your words?
SQ: To be honest, Sonam was my suggestion partly because I knew I had easy access to her via Shanti and also because I saw a striking resemblance between her and Neerja. I also know that actresses today look for an author-backed role, and so I hoped she would readily hear the script. Essentially, I came into this business without any support, so I constantly have to look for work; the insecurity of what we will do next is something we all share. So it was the need for work that led to the thought of writing a biopic on Neerja, which everyone around me supported. Then Ram came on board and gave it a different tilt and we all worked towards that.
SS: When did Sanyuktha step in as dialogue writer?
Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh (SCS): I have known Shanti since Bobby Jasoos. I told her I was jobless after Bobby Jasoos and was looking for work. That’s when she told me about this film, to be directed by Ram. The moment she told me Ram was directing, I knew I had to do the
film any which way. I didn’t know Saiwyn then but my parents had both worked in airlines, so I was familiar with the hijacking.
SS: Were there any clashes during the writing sessions?
SQ: When Shanti told me Sanyuktha would be writing the dialogue, I remember telling her that I would not share credit for the screenplay. This was before Sanyuktha and I had met. As a writer, I was concerned that she might say this or that scene was not working. But when we connected, we were all on for the film and Ram was this visionary who held our hands and told us where to go.
SCS: I was hired when Saiwyn was still writing the screenplay, so I was there throughout the process. Sometimes you are given a screenplay and asked to write the dialogue, but here the characters grew before my eyes, so I knew their emotions and I could write dialogue to suit them. Sometimes a screenplay writer stops you from writing extra stuff; he gives you a scene and asks you to fit your dialogue into it. Saiwyn was not like that. He was open to suggestions and changes. In fact, we both had suggestions. The initial dialogue of Sonam, where she says: ‘Jo hona hai woh hota hai…’, was written by Saiwyn.
SQ: I would like to add here that it was all because of Ram. He has been a pillar. He pushed us to deliver our best. He showed us the right path. He helped us imagine what it must have felt like to be in that situation. He also rejected a lot of our stuff, but in the end we all delivered our best because of those rejections.
SS: Did you also look beyond Neerja’s life, outside the realm of facts?
SQ: No. We stayed true to the story, because that’s what Ram wanted. The challenge was to stay honest and still bring in the drama. My biggest struggle was writing the scene between Naresh and Neerja, where the husband has to seem ‘normal’ but at the same time come across as a creep you want to hate. We were struggling to write that scene till the very end, and Ram kept rejecting our drafts till we finally got the emotions right. As in the scene where he hands her a chicken leg and then says, ‘Tu vegetarian hain na? Phek de,’ giving you a sense of how inconsiderate he was and how badly he must have treated her. We didn’t ever show any violence; we didn’t even show him touching her. We wanted it to be a subtle, gradual build-up of the tension in the relationship.
SCS: What Sonam as Neerja reads in the letter are the exact words her husband had written to Neerja’s father. I just put them forth in Hindi. So thanks are also due to the family, who really opened up to us. That honesty that Saiwyn is talking about… we were not allowed to steer away from it at all.
SS: The film is about Neerja but it also explores the mindset of the terrorists, the parent-daughter bond etc. How did you sketch those characters?
SQ: The first draft I wrote was actually a thriller, told from the terrorists’ point of view. But when Ram stepped in, he pointed out the possible mother-daughter angle and I thought, ‘Oh, yes!’ So recreating those terrorist characters was something I enjoyed – the way the leader is unsure, the second in command is a committed jihadi, the third is just a kid chosen randomly and doesn’t really know what’s happening…
SS: Terrorism has changed over time and, today, it is very different from the way things happened on that flight. How did you preserve the essence of the terror of those times?
SQ: That worked in our favour I guess, because it highlighted the hand of chance in the way the disaster unfolded. These men had no elaborate blueprint. Any plane would have done for them. They just decided they’d take the next one, storm the cockpit and demand that the pilots take them to Cyprus. They didn’t even know the cockpit was upstairs. Besides, no one knows exactly how Neerja gave the hijack code but that she did is established.