We didn’t have the budget to pull off Neerja – Atul Kasbekar
Very rarely does one see a first-time producer hit gold at the box office and also receive unanimous critical praise for his movie. Atul Kasbekar, who heads the celeb management firm Bling Entertainment that ventured into film production with the Sonam Kapoor starrer Neerja, has managed to strike that balance. Pandolin spoke to Atul about the various challenges encountered on his debut production, his reaction to the overwhelming response to the film and his future plans.
How does it feel to receive praise from all quarters for your debut production?
It feels really nice. You start off trying to make a good movie. Initially, you don’t think in terms of whether it’s going to get all-round praise or not. And it’s extremely gratifying when that happens. Making a motion picture is an extremely difficult and time consuming process but I am glad that we managed to get this right in our debut film.
I also read that the film has been made tax free by the Maharashtra government…
Yes, it happened on February 24. I will also be meeting the Chief Minister of Gujarat for the same. It’s a very honest movie about the youngest Ashok Chakra awardee in India. It’s a fairly straightforward exercise to give it that distinction.
Going back a little, how did Bling decide to get into film production and how did Neerja happen?
The writer who wrote Mary Kom, Saiwyn Quadras, is a very close friend of one of my partners Shanti (Sivram) and we now also represent him at Bling. Saiwyn had sent us the story of Neerja, to know our thoughts on it. At that time, Mary Kom had not released, so it was not like we were acquiring a story form a hit writer. I was familiar with Neerja’s story because at the time of the incident, I was studying in America and there was a lot of information (about it) floating around at the time. When Saiwyn had fleshed out the skeleton of the story, I told him that if we got the rights from the family to make the film, we would be happy to take it further. I managed to track down the Bhanots and they were kind enough to give us the rights, even though they have been declining anyone who approached them during the last 30 years. So, we were quite happy that it came to us.
You invited the likes of Vidya Balan, Boman Irani, Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani among others to come to the sets and talk to the cast every now and then. What was the idea behind it?
First of all, we didn’t have the budget to pull off this movie but we didn’t want to compromise in any department. Everything in the movie has been shot in 15 days and we had really long takes, anything between 30 minutes to two hours. It was a taxing process. We didn’t want to think of junior artists as extras; it was a very demeaning term for what they had to do. So we spoke to them as featured cast and treated them extremely well. To boost their morale, every two days we would have an actor or a director come and have a chat with them. And they started looking forward to these visits.
How long have you known Ram Madhvani and why did approach him to direct the film?
I have known Ram for the last 25 years and we have been friends ever since. When I had first come down from US, he was looking for somebody who could play basketball for an ad. He couldn’t find anyone who could play the game and is good on screen. So somebody asked me if I could bail out this guy called Ram Madhvani because he was struggling to find someone who could play basketball. So I went and did a video clip for him.
Coming to Neerja, when we started, we thought of taking an established Bollywood director because it’s not an easy subject to do. But being a first time producer, it’s not like I could throw bags of cash at somebody. So I thought of talking to people who have the same hunger and same sensibilities and that’s when I decided to call Ram. I met him for coffee and by the time we had finished, he’d said yes to the film.
Was Sonam Kapoor always your first choice for the movie? Did you’ll audition with other actresses as well?
Sonam was our first and only choice. We would have thought of someone else only if Sonam would have said no. She said yes and we are grateful that she decided to back a film by a first time production house.
Could you tell us about the key challenges encountered while shooting the film?
The airplane sequence was really difficult. Firstly, we were trying to get a Boeing 747, which is a 1986 configuration. While we could have had access to a Jumbo jet, the business class and the first class are completely different now. Even the cockpits now are so digital and they don’t have knobs. But when you have a fastidious director and a set designer like Aparna Sud, everything goes well. Also, about five days into the shoot, an industry strike was going to take place. The last time a strike took place, it lasted 45 days, which is an eternity if you’re trying to make a movie. In no way could we have kept the set standing and maintained the continuity of the people. But before anything could go horribly wrong, it seemed to sort itself out. And I kept thinking that the film was really blessed because we all worked very hard. Somewhere, we had a lot of blessings from Neerja and her mother.
Besides Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tikku, you’ve worked with an all new cast. What was the thought process behind this decision?
We wanted it to be a ‘Gabbar’ like surprise, specially with the terrorists. I had thought of casting my good friend Rahul Dev but you have seen him before, so the familiarity clouds whatever else you are trying to do with the guy. We decided to do something really different with the cast and I think that worked because there is a certain shock value attached with Khalil, Mansoor, Fahad and Safarini.
Despite the scenes involving shootings and violence, you’ll have managed to stay away from blood and gore. Was that a conscious decision?
It was really the director’s call. But there were lots of scenes where if you don’t do the obvious, your imagination runs wild. I think he handled it beautifully in that context. For example, when Neerja is in the bathroom, we cut back to scenes of her ex-husband. I think the implications of what could have happened makes the scene more powerful in my opinion. Ram’s handled that really well. Also, not showing blood helps you get a U-certificate.
What was the reaction of the Bhanot family when you’ll showed them the first cut?
They saw the movie when it was complete. But they gave us an immense amount of trust and faith, which put a lot of responsibility on our shoulders in terms of not letting them down in anyway. We had them read the script in Bombay and sign off on it. They also posted a video saying that there were no deviations in the script and they were happy the way it has turned out.
Are there any learnings as a Producer that you took back from Neerja?
Working as a producer is a great skill of people management because you are working with so many departments at the same time. And there were really good people on the sets, for example, my partner from Bling – Shanti, which is an apt name for her. She was like a zen monk amongst all of us and got all the work done with a smile. There was a wonderful energy around the unit; everybody understood that they were doing something big and were part of something special. Shabana Azmi gave us her nod within 24 hours of me calling her. Sanjay Reddy gave us the airport for free. It’s wonderful to see how many people have been there for us.
Will Bling be producing more movies in the future? Are there any projects in the pipeline?
There are about four projects for which we are in various stages of discussion. By the end of the year, one will be on the floors for sure.
Lastly, what kind of scripts would you like to back and produce?
That’s actually a very good question. We approached Neerja from the point that it was very good at the script level itself. Our simple approach is – these days when people have so many options of visual entertainment, you need to give them a damn good reason to go to the theatre and watch a film. So we better be dead-sure that it’s a good movie and don’t waste people’s money.