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.
SS: The film is a complete entertainment package. There is emotion, romance, relationships and fear. The past and future blend seamlessly. How did it all come about?
SQ: That was all part of the screenplay. Like I said, for me it was initially a thriller, and then Ram sir saw it as a mother-daughter film. Then there’s obviously the truth of her broken marriage, so you have to find the right time and space for those flashbacks. Thankfully, with Ram sitting with us and Sanyuktha being there, we got the right motivation. When your flashbacks have a purpose, the connection will always be there, and in them, in fact, we found something to drive Neerja’s character. As the film progresses towards her final act, she seems to have decided that while she failed to stand up for herself in her personal life, she was determined not to let that happen again. So the arc of her character progresses alongside the arc of the hijacking incident.
SCS: We had written many variations as options to go back to because we had to find not only the right one but also the right emotional one. That back and forth was a very long and tedious process.
SQ: Yes, but I think we have grown as writers.
SCS: (Cuts In) Also because we wrote the same thing so many times.
SS: What was the toughest part of the dialogue for you to write?
SCS: It was the mother’s speech, Saiwyn did a fantastic job. He really is a joy as a screenplay writer because he writes a full scene, including the dialogue in English and only in that scene he…
SQ: (Cuts In) I left it. It was only the mother giving an emotional speech and I described the pride and pain and whatever else she must have felt.
SCS: There was a motivating little paragraph there. Ram had told me he didn’t want a rotlu film but an inspirational one. He conceded that there would be some tears but it should essentially be an inspirational tale. But I received tremendous support from my co-writer and director.
SQ: These are two magical scenes, including the mother’s speech. Sanyuktha gave so many versions of it but the heart of it was the scene and whenever she used to read the script during the narration, people used to cry. Whenever Sanyuktha used to read it aloud, everyone present would start sobbing. Then the letter scene… the scene we had planned while shooting the film and the one that features in the film are different. She had to rewrite that too, several times.
SCS: It was more of an expression, she is crying and then she is laughing.
SQ: And it worked! Those are the two magical scenes, from where the tears begin to flow. And once Shabana Azmi says, ‘Pushpa, I hate tears’, then it’s just… dishkiyaoon!
SCS: That too was an interesting story. I had gone to Famous Studio to meet Ram for the hundredth time and I told him that I could not do it. I told him I didn’t know what he wanted and then it had to end with Rajesh Khanna’s dialogue because she was shown to be a huge Rajesh Khanna fan. So Ram got into a little cubicle and just sat there for 10 minutes and spoke to me. He just spoke about relationships and what happens when your heart breaks; he put so many emotions into my head that I suddenly told Ram that I had cracked it! I wrote it all in a diary and I gave it to him and said, ‘You tell me if this works.’ When I was leaving, he said to me, ‘I know this one is going to work, I could see it in your eyes.’
SS: What response are you getting from the audience? Are the original passengers getting in touch with you?
SQ: There are a lot of people getting in touch with Atul, Shanti, Ram and Sonam, obviously, because they are the faces of the film. But Sanyuktha and I have also got some fantastic reactions. The best reaction I got was from Javed Akhtar saab, when he attended the screening. He held mine and Sanyuktha’s hands and said, ‘It has been ages since I saw a story this gripping, and it made me cry.’ I told him that the compliment, coming from him, meant the world to us,
and he told us that we have no idea how much respect he has for the two of us. He was sitting in a corner wiping his tears and we were in seventh heaven!
SCS: We all have a personal banker with whom we have a love-hate relationship and my personal banker messaged me saying, ‘Ma’am, I just saw Neerja and I am proud to be your personal banker’ and I was like…
SQ: (Cuts in) Mera interest rate zara kamm kar do…
SCS: Nahin, EMI! At least, Saiwyn
had a film that had reached the masses (Mary Kom) but that had never happened to me. And then, of course, there was the reaction from Subhash Ghai!
SQ: At the screening, he came out after the first half and gave us the thumbs-up; then he went in for the second half and came out after the film ended and he gave us two thumbs-up, and then he came over to us and said, ‘Pappu paas ho gaya!’