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Ram Madhvani: I shoot 360 degrees

The film-maker on what went into recreating the remarkable story of air hostess Neerja Bhanot

Madhvani is a well-known ad film-maker—Neerja is his second feature film. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint<br />
Madhvani is a well-known ad film-maker—Neerja is his second feature film. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

From as early as the age of 16, Ram Madhvani knew he wanted to direct films. At 24, he was offered a partnership in a production house that specialized in making ad films. In 2000, he worked as an associate director on Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir and in 2002, he directed his first feature film, Let’s Talk. He came close to helming a few big projects, including a fantasy feature with Amitabh Bachchan, which didn’t pan out. But his work in ad films has received acclaim. He won the Cannes Lion for a Happydent White commercial. He is also recognized for his Airtel Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai ad. Like his peers, Madhvani continued to build his brand with music videos, ad films and documentaries. With the release of his new film Neerja, his feature film career gets a reboot after 14 years.

Sonam Kapoor plays air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who died at the age of 23 while saving passengers on the Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked in 1986. Read edited excerpts from an interview:

Why has it taken this long for you to direct your second feature film?

It’s not that I didn’t try. You could say the universe didn’t conspire or the stars didn’t align. When Atul Kasbekar called me three years ago and asked me if I would like to make Neerja, I said yes. I had never met Neerja but I felt like I knew her: My business partner Sumantra Ghosal was shooting an ad with her on the day that she left, so I knew about Neerja from then. We were practically the same age and belonged to Bombay. I felt like I knew her from being part of the same world. Atul, Sonam (Kapoor) and I met Neerja’s family in Chandigarh and we worked with Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyukta Chawla Shaikh on the script and dialogue, respectively, and then everything just fell into place.

You have a hugely successful career as an ad film-maker. Is making a feature film that important?

I wanted to make a feature film from the age of 16. I always wanted to be a director. Ad films happened by default. But ads, features, documentaries, music videos—they are all part of the game. Making films was a quest. It’s like if you are going to climb Mount Everest—there will be landslides, you might get snow blindness and frostbite, you may lose a toe, but you have to decide, are you going to come back or continue climbing that mountain? But you cannot complain or get demotivated.

Of course you do complain if you are feeling really cold, but this is Everest—it will be cold! So you might get frustrated and bitter but the only thing to tell yourself is that you are on a certain journey. I am on the journey of cinema and sometimes the stops I had are not the stops I should have made. But then I continued on that journey. You cannot lose sight of your destination.

What kind of research and planning went into the script, and recreating the events around the hijacking?

The story is based on fact, but (we have) filled in (some) blanks. We were very methodical with our research, but then my job is to make sure you feel what it would be like to be on a plane for 16 hours. I have to also give it an emotional core that is inspirational and motivational—what the passengers went through and how they overcame that. At its core, it is a mother-daughter story, but it’s also a thriller.

To arrive at that feeling, I ensured that my “terrorists" were sequestered and cloistered. They did three months of workshops and learnt Arabic and they did not meet the passengers or the air hostesses. My air hostesses, including Sonam, went to an airline for training. Our research included interviewing several people, including survivors. Strangely, there was a trainee in our office at that time and she saw the seating chart on the board and asked what it was. When she heard it was a film on Neerja, she told us that her mother was on that flight. Her mother came down and saw the rehearsals. We also spoke to Neerja’s family a lot. But at the end of the day, we are in the business of feelings and capturing energy and trying to put that across through visuals, words, music, etc.

Jim Sarbh and Sonam Kapoor in the film

How would you describe your film-making style?

My quest is to see how we can replicate reality and some truth in film. I like to see how I can capture life on screen so that it exists before “action" and after “cut" and not just in between “action" and “cut". Mike Leigh, Asghar Farhadi and Fatih Akin are my gods. When you watch their films you feel like you are watching life and the camera just happened to be there. Which is what I tried to do in Let’s Talk, that you are so absorbed by the emotional truth that you have forgotten you are watching a movie and are in it. I shoot 360 degrees, with four cameras. Every seat, every passenger has a back-story. We rehearsed with each of the featured cast separately. I know my script and I know at some point somebody is going to pull out a gun. But at what point? The only people who know that are the terrorist and myself. The passengers know it will happen, but not when. So you have to orchestrate chaos. I also think cinema and the arts offer catharsis in a way that news headlines no longer do. One’s ability to receive news of tragedy and get affected by it is a human need. The Greeks did it through their plays. Now our catharsis comes from the arts, music and cinema. It makes you cry. Otherwise we are numbing ourselves. And that responsibility weighs heavily on me.

Do you feel a different kind of anxiety or nerves about reactions to your feature film than you do for an ad film?

Shyam Benegal once told me your second film matters the most. My first film was an independent film in English which was critically well received. I am very proud of it. Meanwhile, the advertising work got recognized a lot more. When I was associate director on Mission Kashmir, it was because of something I did for Adidas. Whatever fame or reputation I got is thanks to advertising films. So I don’t think of this as a new test, but the same old test.

I think anxiety is a good thing and I feel it even with ad films, because you are known by the last film you make. One of the secrets to managing anxiety is managing budgets. For this kind of a film you need this amount of money. I was first given 60 days to shoot, but I said I would do it in 31 days and I did, and I was under budget. If you make the film in that budget, you are safe. Yes, the anxiety is there, every day, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

Neerja released in theatres on Friday.

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