The making of Neerja

Producer Atul Kasbekar on why his first venture as a producer was about keeping the vulnerability of the story, the cast and crew alive

Sonam Kapoor during the making of Neerja. Image Courtesy: Atul Kasbekar
Sonam Kapoor during the making of Neerja. Image Courtesy: Atul Kasbekar

What you won’t see in Neerja the film that releases on Friday, 19 February based on the life of Pan Am purser Neerja Bhanot (played by Sonam Kapoor) is how her mother found solace through “auto-writing” to communicate with her daughter’s spirit after she was killed. Automatic writing or psychography is described as a psychic ability some people allegedly develop when guided by supernatural forces.

The film’s cinematic depth and nuances notwithstanding, as audiences, we may not even guess that producer Atul Kasbekar, director Ram Madhvani and the team took long months to research every story and account that had appeared on the Pan Am flight 73, hijacked in Karachi by terrorists in 1986. They say they unearthed every little detail about Neerja Bhanot who was shot after saving 359 lives on board, right down to getting information on her personality and likings as a school kid. They also extensively interviewed the survivors of that tragic incident.

Kasbekar, a well-known glamour photographer, also known for his association with the Kingfisher Swimsuit calendar and as the face of Carl F. Bucherer watches, says turning film producer was a natural progression of his work. Many in the glamour industry would know that the passionately restless Kasbekar owns and runs Bling! a celebrity management company based in Mumbai. In a former conversation, Kasbekar had told me that he selects and rejects who Bling! represents with his eyes wide open, his criteria being to work only with those who have ability and talent to withstand the rough and tumble of the glamour world and emerge (and look like) a star.

For Neerja though, he says his long standing friendship with the film’s director Madhvani, their mutual willingness to keep the vulnerability of the cast and crew alive gave it a “different energy” from the usual Bollywood venture. “It was an egoless structure, the team work and the entire pursuit,” says Kasbekar, adding that bypassing the formulaic assumption that everybody is a pundit in the movie business was important to tell this story with authenticity.

“Neerja’s story came to me written on seven pages. The Bhanot family which had refused to give permission for 30 years to all those keen to turn their brave daughter’s story into a film had finally agreed. After that, it was up to us to develop the story on paper,” he says.

The film, a moving retelling of Neerja Bhanot’s tryst with terrorists, her presence of mind as a young professional motivated to save passenger lives without worrying about her own, her tender relationship with her mother was shot in a record 32 days. Bhanot remains the only female recipient of the Ashok Chakra, the highest civilian award that was awarded to her posthumously. Unfortunately, Neerja’s mother (played by Shabana Azmi) passed away before the film was ready for release.

The airplane was made from scratch for the shooting as nothing currently available with airlines could resemble the Pan Am jumbo jet according to Kasbekar. But it was the selection of those who played the roles of the passengers aboard that ill-fated flight that became another compelling project. “They are all real people, shortlisted first from 700 to 500, then finally to 250,” explains Kasbekar, bringing up anecdotes from the auditions. “People overact in our country; besides, those playing these small roles had to have a certain temperament. It was really about telling them to be in Row 12 or 6 or whichever for more than a fortnight day after day and stay there.”

To keep these non-actors motivated, Kasbekar says they invited celebrities like Vidya Balan, Boman Irani, Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani among others to come to the sets and talk to the cast now and then, convincing them that they were germane to the process of making of what is actually a historic film in terms of its significance.

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