Deconstructing Neerja’s Pan Am aircraft with Aparna Sud
When you watch Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, not even once would it occur to your mind that the Pam Am aircraft which is shown in the film is not a real airplane. The credit for which goes to its competent production designer Aparna Sud who created the exact same set in 48 days. The Shimla girl who is making her Hollywood debut with Duane Adler’s upcoming film Heatrbeats and has earlier worked in films such as Tevar, ABCD: Any Body Can Dance, Nishabd, Dus Kahaniyaan etc. speaks to Pandolin about the making of the flawless airplane.
How did Neerja happen?
A very good friend of mine who is from Fox Star Studios told me that there is a project where they want an entire plane to be constructed. My eyes were wide open and I said, “Please give it to me.” This was the biggest challenge any production designer could get. But I was quite convinced about it. So I went to meet Ram (Madhvani, Director) and even he was convinced that I could do it.
What kind of an experience was it to create the replica of the Pan Am aircraft in Mumbai?
We started working on the entire foundation of the plane as it was supposed to be on a height of 22 feet. Parallely we started making every single thing of the plane from the windows and panels to the cockpit section etc. We had six teams who were working on it separately yet parallelly. Once we got the skeleton in place, we already had the stairs and other things almost ready to be put together. For around 40 days we were doing everything separately and on the day 41, we started putting everything together.
But why did you’ll choose to build the set from scratch?
Because we had no other option. All the planes that we visited and were allowed us to shot in were much fancier. The whole structure of the planes has now changed and we needed to show 1986. Drastic changes have taken place in planes since then. From placements of the toilets to the chairs; we had to make some changes so that the camera could move around easily. The team did contemplate shooting in an existing plane, for instance a recce was done in Abu Dhabi, but we were not very happy with what we got.
So what were your reference points for this aircraft?
We did a lot of research from the Internet, all thanks to Google and other websites. We also got hold of some manuals, which are generally not leaked out. I also went through technical manuals of the Boeing 747, consulted pilots who have flown the aircraft and also met aeronautical engineers and flight attendants. We also came across the website of Pan Am’s former employees. And certain books and films were also referenced.
How many people did you team comprise of and where did these six different teams work?
They were all working on the set itself. There were tents made and everybody was working there because I couldn’t supervise this from anywhere else. I think everyday we had around 200-250 people working on the project.
You’ll must have had to work day and night to achieve this?
There were some days where we did work like that. Obviously I used to reach work at 9.30 in the morning and leave the set at 10.30 at night. But at the end of it, we did have to work 24×7 because we didn’t have any other choice.
From where did you source the material to build the airplane?
It was largely sourced from Mumbai, China and Ahmedabad.
What problems did you’ll face while building such a huge set?
I don’t think there was any major issue except handling so many people. Actually, handling them was also not difficult. It was a huge task but I knew I had to do it.
Money was another challenge because we didn’t have enough money to throw around and make anything. The seats and panels of the plane are actually available in the US but I did not have that kind of money to buy them. We did not have the resources to buy everything so had to replicate them.
Were you convinced that the task would be completed in 48 days or did you ask for more time?
Truly speaking I had asked for 45 days but we got delayed by three days as the belts were supposed to come from China and they came in late.
Though the aircraft was a design, it appeared completely real. What worked in creating such an exact replica?
I think our research was one of the main aspects. We did a little sample of the plane before starting, which helped a lot. And I think that the film crew, especially the art department that we had were very quick. I think people who are not from our line couldn’t have made it so quickly. I have heard it takes four to five years to build a plane.
Also, we heard that some amount of VFX was used in the making?
One of the wings of the aircraft was constructed while the other side was not. So whatever you see through the window is done through VFX and so is the take-off sequence. The only difference between a real plane and mine was that my plane was not moving.