INTERVIEW: Director Ram Madhvani on ‘Neerja’

February 5, 2016

Ram MadhvaniRam Madhvani took a 13-year break from movies. In the interim, he made award-winning commercials (including the Happy Dent gum ad), but efforts to do more in film didn’t work out.

Then photographer Atul Kasbekar approached him to direct a film based on the life of flight purser Neerja Bhanot, who saved lives and helped rescue efforts when hijackers seized Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi in 1986. She died during the hijack.

The film releases on Feb. 19 and stars Sonam Kapoor as Bhanot. Madhvani spoke to Reuters about “Neerja“, how he shot it, and whether the principles of success in advertising and films differ.

You are shooting a promo song for your film. Do you think it fits in with the tone of a film like “Neerja”? Is it necessary?
Yes. I come from advertising and it’s important because you have to reach out and tell people what your film is about. You have to do that with some amount of honesty. There are different stages – week minus six, you release the trailer, or week minus four, you do that. That’s what keeps you in the conversation. Which is what you want.

Can there be too much conversation?
If it’s good conversation, then it’s never too much. In advertising, you call it water-cooler conversation. People talking about it and it becoming part of popular culture.  If people talk about Neerja, it’s a good thing. She stood for something, she stood for certain things, so it is not a bad thing to go out there and tell people about it honestly.

Do the same principles that spell success in advertising also work in films?
In all my years of advertising, in all the workshops I have given and when I am thinking about my work, I am always wondering – what do I say? How do I say it? And, most importantly, how should you feel?

How can you decide how a large group of people should feel?
(Laughs) This is the rasa theory. I have to make you feel … the best films are when you forget yourself, and yet you remember some forgotten part of yourself. My ultimate job is to be the audience. This is what made me feel a certain way, and I have to believe that this is what the audience will feel too. It is what Harivansh Rai Bachchan said about poetry – I have a headache, I write about it, and when you read it, you receive my headache and you feel it. There is a catharsis effect. So as a film-maker, when you make a trailer, I have to predict what you are going to feel. Eventually I am in the business of feelings. I am here to make you laugh, or cry or get gooseflesh. This is the alchemy of what we do, but it is a difficult mix to achieve.

Can we recap a bit and start with how “Neerja” came to be?
Around three years ago, Saiwyn Quadras (the scriptwriter) came to Atul Kasbekar, who asked me. Sonam had come on board. We went and met the family – my regret is that Neerja’s mother passed away two days before we released the trailer. We couldn’t show her the film or the trailer. But I know she is up there, and clearing all our obstacles.

Nee2So many of your films have been announced, but did not work out. Was it a relief that this one did?
Yes, it was a huge relief. Every time a film doesn’t work out you keep wondering why it isn’t working out, and you deal with it by getting disappointed and dismayed. You cry. After a while, I told myself that I would give myself a deadline on the tears.

We are seeing a lot of film-makers making films based on true stories. What is the role of authenticity in this genre? Is it OK to alter facts in the name of entertainment?
It is not OK. That is not your intention and that is not where your sincerity and intention lie. But at the end of the day, this is a film about Neerja and this is why she got an Ashok Chakra. All that is documented. It is up to me to capture what they were going through inside that plane and for the people who went through it to tell us if I have captured it right. Of course we do the due diligence and research, but it is up to me to depict emotions. So do I think it’s good to manipulate facts? No, but it depends what you mean by facts and truth. This is subjective. Even a documentary cannot escape this. What I am really interested in, at the end of the day, is to inspire you by the life of a person who stood for something.

You skipped the part about Neerja Bhanot’s bad marriage and the reasons for her return to India in the film, right? Is that also cinematic liberty?
For that, you must watch the film. Otherwise, this would be a spoiler. I can’t answer that.

Can you talk about shooting this film?
We shot it in 31 days and we were under budget. We built a set, and it is not a real plane. There are no extras in the film. We auditioned 10,000 people and shortlisted the 250 “passengers” on the plane. They all went through workshops and they all had back stories. If they were supposed to board the plane at 2 a.m., they did board it at 2 a.m. The terrorists did enter at 6 a.m. Because what is outside the frame matters – it enters the frame at some point. It was very important to me.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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