I discovered my hero through Neerja – Sonam Kapoor
One of the most sought – after actresses of today, Sonam Kapoor, has recently been part of some of the best movies in Hindi cinema. From bubbly roles to serious characters, the actress has a versatile repertoire of films to her credit. She will soon be seen in one of the most anticipated movies of the year where she portrays the character of an unsung hero, Neerja Bhanot. Neerja was a 23-year-old air hostess who sacrificed her life to save hundreds of passengers on board a hijacked aircraft. As the biographical film, Neerja, is set to release, we caught up with Sonam in an intriguing conversation where she shares her experience of capturing the essence of the inspiring woman.
In Neerja, you portray this brave girl who went through a horrifying event. How did you prepare yourself for the role?
I worked really hard on it, but no amount of work can prepare you for what happens on the set. Ram (Madhvani, Director) made us watch movies like United 93 and we kept thinking about how to create this realism and show such reality. Then, Ram had this incredible and crazy idea, which I thought was impossible. His idea was to create every moment of the story and not just the scenes that were in the movie. The first thing that Ram did was to create the timeline. If Neerja was in the plane for 17 hours, we shot every minute of those 17 hours. Out of that, key moments that were mentioned in the script were taken in the film.
We would start shooting at 2 a.m. in the morning and would stop at 4 a.m. the next morning. But the main thing was that how does one show the crease on a shirt, or the blood on the face, the crying, the exhaustion or the fact that we couldn’t go to the bathroom. How does one show all those hours without it looking fake? We had to memorize lines for those 17 hours. Every day we would start afresh, I would get my makeup done in the morning but by the end of it, there was no makeup left on my face. I had dirt all over me, I would cry, I had blood on my clothes and my stockings were torn. I would be exhausted, bruised, and beaten. And we did all of that every day.
We did a lot of research and spoke to the witnesses who relayed minute – by – minute happenings of the incident. We had all the case files and the entire research took almost a year to complete. We memorized each moment and had workshops where the actors playing the passengers did not meet the cabin crew and the cabin crew did not meet the terrorists. I did not know who the cast was and this movie has the largest featured cast. Everybody is an actor and there is not one extra in the film.
We shot Neerja in a documentary style. There were five hidden cameras and there was no close-up or cuts. So if you are crying; you are crying. My lip was badly cut and I was bleeding but I couldn’t call for a cut and had to continue doing my part.
Were you apprehensive before taking up the film?
I was. Everybody starts off with fear, but as the tagline of this film says, “Fear gave her courage.” So I was determined to do the film. I was scared, but if Neerja had the courage to face terrorists, why couldn’t I have the courage to play her.
Are there any elements of fiction in the film or is the story based solely on true events?
Everything shown in the film is true. A lot of research has been done on Neerja and her life. We always feel that such things can happen only in films, but that is not true because this girl was extraordinary. From everything that happened on the flight to her life, it is all true.
Besides the hijack itself, has the movie touched upon Neerja’s personal life?
I think that everything that happened in her life was leading up to the hijack. Every situation in Neerja’s life was preparing her to be the saviour of this flight. Whether it was her upbringing or her personality or her marriage or whether it was just her as a human being, every aspect prepared her for the situation.
What was the most challenging part about playing Neerja?
I think the toughest thing for me was to realize that I get to get out of the plane and Neerja didn’t. Ram had put up photographs of all the people who lost their lives. He wanted us to understand that this is not just a film and that we are actually paying tribute to these people. He wanted us to remember this when we got on the plane for the shoot. So, every morning before going inside the plane, we would see every person who died and would then go on the flight and make sure that we were honest and sincere in everything that we did.
I was emotionally, physically, and mentally tired. The process of working on the film was difficult, but once I came out of it, it made me strong and I felt exhilarated.
Would you say that this is one of the toughest roles you have played till now?
I don’t know if this is my toughest role because with every film I have tried to do something different. I don’t like to repeat myself. But the reason that I was so passionate about the project was because Neerja Bhanot became my hero. I did not idealize her because she saved 360 lives but what impacted me the most was the fact that she was just an ordinary girl. The only thing that made her do this extraordinary task of saving these people was her spirit, her personality, and her will to do the right thing. This told me that even an ordinary person with no special talent can do something extraordinary and that’s why I am so passionate about the film. I discovered my hero through Neerja.
Has playing Neerja made you a stronger person, mentally and emotionally?
Working on Neerja was not about whether it was the best thing that happened to me creatively or emotionally. I don’t know if it has made me a stronger person, but it has reminded me of the person I started out as.
Do you think that this is a golden phase for you since your work has been appreciated in the past year?
I do one film a year. I took a year before I decided to Raanjhanaa and later took a year off to think about what I wanted to do with my life because I wasn’t happy with the way things were going. I have figured out three things about myself, one, that I can’t play games and can’t be part of the rat race. Two, I am not interested in being the biggest superstar of the country. And three is that I need to be happy and honest when I go to work because otherwise, I do a bad job. So I cannot conform to what people think is the right thing to do. I feel that the only reason that we are around is to evolve as human beings and as artists. I need to evolve with everything I do.
-Dhruvanka Medhekar. Transcribed by Aarti Sukhija.