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.
BOI: Other than Sonam how did the casting come about?
SSM: Besides Sonam, Atul thought of casting Shekhar Ravjiani for Jaideep’s role. For Ramaji’s role everyone was convinced that Shabana Azmiji was the best person, Atul spoke to her on it and we are so thankful and lucky that she came onboard. Our casting director Kanika Berry found all the other gems, from (Yogendra) Tikuji, to the four boys who played the terrorists, to the featured cast that were passengers on the plane. Ram was very involved, and he went through a lot of auditions before finalising the cast.
BOI: How many corporate houses did you meet before Fox Star Studios came on board?
SSM: Atul and I had met Rucha Pathak (creative producer) and she was joining Fox Star Studios at that time, she was the only one we spoke to. She loved the story and promised Neerja would be her first project at Fox Star Studios. And it all fell into place. It’s been an amazing association with Fox Star Studios, we couldn’t have asked for better partners.AK: Full credit to Rucha Pathak, who has been an old friend.
BOI: Back then, she was with Disney?
AK: Yes, she was with Disney and she was serving her notice at the time. She said the concept was excellent and told me she was moving to Fox Star Studios and that her first phone call from there would be to me. She kept her word. She backed the film continuously and she backed a maverick director’s vision on how he wanted to shoot the film. I am sure you are not aware of how he shot it but it is quite remarkable. That’s why our background action doesn’t look like background action. It looks very real. The way he shoots, there is life before action and there is life after he calls ‘cut’.
There were takes that went on for two hours. There were routine takes that lasted 35 to 40 minutes. That’s many, many terabytes of data to go through, so hats off to editor Monisha R Baldawa too. And he would throw various googlies at people… So, Sonam had no idea she was going to be asked to sing a song during one particular take. Ram had told her to learn some Rajesh Khanna songs because they would ‘be of use’. Next thing you know, there’s a gun in her face in the scene and the terrorist is asking her to sing a song. She is fantastic in that scene!
BOI: Were you confident about the product after watching the film?
AK: I was confident all along that we would make a good film, a film that we would be proud of. But I also wanted to ensure that the Bhanot family and passengers were not in any way disappointed. They had lost count of the number of times they had said ‘no’ to people who wanted to make a film on Neerja. For 30 years, they had been saying ‘no’ to people because they didn’t want to over-dramatise her story or make it filmy. I approached them after I read Saiwyn’s seven-pager. I told Saiwyn, it’s not in our nature to do something without the blessing of the family. Although it’s in the public domain and you don’t technically need permission, it’s just not something I would like to do.
So I called them (Neerja’s brothers, Aneesh and Akhil Bhanot), met them, and they said, ‘So what else have you done?’ I said, ‘Nothing’. They looked at each other and asked, ‘Who’s the director?’ I said Ram Madhvani. Then they asked what else he had done. I said, ‘Nothing in films; he’s an ad guy.’ They looked at each other again and essentially said, ‘Are you totally mad? Why would we give it to you when we’ve said ‘no’ to so many people before?’ But I convinced them by saying we would make an honest film, one that would not let Neerja down in any way. Maybe it was the honest look on our faces, because they said ‘yes’.
BOI: Did you meet the passengers as well?
AK: We hired a researcher who met anybody who was willing to be on camera. Our perspective was, you’re in a 200-to-300-foot-long aluminum coffin. You don’t dare turn your head or look around, and everyone is literally seeing this from a
different perspective. There is no right or wrong version – just many different views of what happened during those 16 hours, 30 years ago. Every version is also prone to memory lapses and embellishment, so one has to be very careful, especially when telling the stories of those who passed away. Remember, this was one of the worst hijacking traumas in history. I don’t think many people know that. And it would have been even worse if she (Neerja) hadn’t opened that door and let people out. When you see pictures of the aircraft in the aftermath, it’s shocking that anyone survived.
BOI: Despite a very tight script, you had Ram Madhvani directing and Sonam Kapoor as the lead. Not exactly very hot property. When you were meeting production houses initially, was there any pressure to change the cast or director?
AK: There were lots of suggestions at various levels and stages. At one point somebody said I should take the money and walk away. Neither was that an option nor was dropping Ram or Sonam. She was the first and only choice for Neerja. There was something we all believed she could bring to the part. Ram had never met Sonam before, but after they met he was clear that she fit the role. We took her to meet people and there was this strange kind of cosmic energy at play. The first blessing came from Neerja’s mother. She hadn’t been to Chandigarh since 1985, so I insisted she visit our plane sets and bless the film. When she walked in, she saw Sonam and said, ‘Yeh toh humari laado hai.’ We too had always felt there was a resemblance. So this was a positive sign, although of course she then turned to her son and said, ‘My Neerja was
much prettier,’ as any good Indian
mother would do.
Again and again, we were blessed. We reached a point where we said all films should be like this, where it initially feels like there is no hope for this marriage but it all somehow works out. For instance, we needed an airport and we didn’t have any money. So I called Sanjay Reddy of the GVK Reddy Group and said, ‘I’m sending you one page of the story.’ He said he would try to give us a good deal, so I told him, ‘A good number would be zero.
We can give credit but we don’t have
Five minutes after receiving our email, we received all the clearances we needed, without paying any money. The same thing happened with Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways. Saregama gave us the song Bye bye miss good night for free, which is very unlike them, but they did. I said to Sanjiv Goenka, this is the story, help me tell the story; we can’t do it unless you all help us. And we got the song.
This happened again and again across the board. I sent an email to minister Piyush Goyal and he introduced us to the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, who asked us to come to Delhi. I went and the next thing I knew, I signed an application and it was all approved.
BOI: With a subject like this, it is very easy to cross a line into melodrama and jingoism. How did you not fall prey to that?
AK: That is due to the genius of Ram. He comes from the school of less is more, and this story itself is so fantastic that you don’t need to hype it. This is a woman who was hounoured with bravery citations from three different countries, the youngest Ashok Chakra awardee in the history of our Republic, at age 23. At the time, she was also the only woman awardee. And then there is the fascinating aspect that this could have been anybody. This was not someone with an Army background. She went to Bombay Scottish school and St Xavier’s College; all of us know somebody with that kind of background in every city.
We didn’t make the movie to start a conversation, and yet it has. A school friend, who is secretary of his building’s housing society, called me three days after he watched the movie and said, ‘You know, your film hasn’t left me and I have realised that one of our watchmen has never taken a day off. He is always on time, does overtime, doesn’t crib, always stands up when people walk in. He does a simple job but he does it very well. I went up to him and said, ‘Well done.’ And I did it because of the movie, because I realised that Neerja was doing her job and she did it very well.’ Coming back to your question… we had decided to make an honest film.
BOI: …which had been your promise to the family too.
SSM: And Ram was very clear about his vision for the film.
AK: Yes, and like I said, everyone else backed it.
BOI: Does the scale of the response surprise you?
AK: The scale of the goodwill genuinely surprised us. I sincerely did not want anyone to lose money on the movie, at the very least. But then the trailer released, and everyone from Baichung Bhutia to Saina (Nehwal) to (Sachin) Tendulkar to Omar Abdullah and Shashi Tharoor… all kinds of people tweeted, saying, ‘Check this out!’ This gave us an indication of what was to come. Then we had the influencers’ screening, and there was an overall warmth about the film; nobody had anything bad to say.
BOI: That’s what your Sunday proved
SSM: Monday too…
AK: Monday and Tuesday.
BOI: So now the bar is set very high!
AK: Very scary.
BOI: What’s next?
AK: We are working on four or five things, but we will hopefully follow the same pattern where we are first happy with what is on paper before we begin doing something with it. And then hopefully somebody will say, ‘Okay we will help you tell the story.’ Fingers crossed…
BOI: Is there a vision of the kinds of subject you want to explore?
AK: No… we are working on a comedy, on a musical and on an official remake that we have secured the rights to. On a personal level, my hero is Raju Hirani. He makes terrific cinema. He sends out a message through his movies, but it is never a preachy message. You may get it right away or you may pick up on it later; his stories stay in your subconscious. And everybody in the value chain is rewarded as the product makes money. That is a win-win situation and that is how it should be. If we can work out something like that, it would be great. We said, ‘Let Neerja release, we will talk after its release.’ Now, they will see a different me at the negotiating table! (Laughs)