Bollywood is no longer the sole preserve of the heroic male. Today’s crop of young female superstars, not content playing second fiddle to men are embracing mainstream films telling stories of extraordinary women.
The latest is Sonam Kapoor, whose latest film ‘Neerja’ tells the powerful story of Neerja Bhanot, a model-turned-air stewardess.
In September 1986, the vivacious and confident Chandigarh-born 22-year-old was the chief air stewardess on Pan Am airlines flight 73 from Mumbai ultimately bound for New York. During a short stop-over in Karachi, Pakistan the plane was hijacked with four heavily-armed militants boarding the Boeing 747.
In a violent and tense situation, Neerja displayed extraordinary presence of mind and bravery, immediately warning the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer who fled the cockpit through a hatch, thereby preventing the hijackers of taking the plane to another destination.
Next he scuppered the attackers attempts to individually identify the passengers – who included many from Western “capitalist” countries who had been targeted in similar hijackings throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s.
That action saved countless lives.
As the hijacking dragged on the frustrated attackers’ resolve broke, resulting in a furious shootout which left 20 dead. Eye-witnesses later recalled how Neerja helped shepherd passengers out of the plane and was shielding a group of small children when she was fatally shot.
360 passengers and crew out of 380 survived – many owing to the quick thinking and bravery of Neerja Bhanot.
Sadly, she wasn’t among the survivors. Neerja would later become the youngest recipient of her country’s highest peacetime military honour for bravery, the ‘Ashok Chakra’.
Our reporter Ruchi Raj caught up with Sonam Kapoor to find out about this extraordinary woman and the film celebrating her life.
Ruchi: Hi Sonam, thank you for speaking with us. To begin with, let me just say – having seen the promos – the resemblance between you and Neerja are striking!
Sonam: Oh Wow! Thank you. That is thanks to my director, make- up artists and everybody who stepped in around me. Thank you so much. That is really, really kind.
Ruchi: I suppose the greatest challenge is to have captured what Neerja Bhanot went through on a personal and professional level. Tell us a bit about how you prepared for the role and the kind of research that you did?
Sonam: Well, you know, honestly getting the superficial aspects of Neerja, as in the way she looked and the way she carried herself, her voice and all that was extremely easy because of the make-up artists and then the costumes and then my director and so many other things. But to get the soul of her was complicated because she was an ordinary girl. She was a regular girl and you had to capture her essence, her soul to kind of show that across on the screen. Because she has this beautiful glow on her face – so the biggest question for me as an actress was to capture that. And then I did the research on what people knew about her and what people thought of her and what she stood for. I had to imbibe that in my personality so that it automatically came through when I played her. And that was the main effort. The fact that she always stood up for what’s right, the fact that she was so principled, kind and soft spoken and she had a lot of zest for life, she loved her friends, her brothers, her job. I needed to imbibe all of that and that was the preparation. And obviously, the physical training and there was a lot of action and also training of an airhostess.
Ruchi: What was the journey like for you playing a daughter and ultimately an ordinary woman who displayed such extraordinary courage in a crisis?
Sonam: It was a very cathartic experience for me honestly. I have been most affected by this role to be very honest, because of the kind of human being she was and to become that, to have that much soul, to have that kind of personality was a cathartic experience. It was mentally, physically and emotionally extremely taxing. It was something I really learnt a lot from. I will always be really grateful for that experience. Just because of what she went through during those 16 hours on flight I think that it’s something that shows great human spirit. And I did not feel the need to complain even once, no matter what the conditions were while shooting or no matter how much I got beat up, no matter how exhausted I was emotionally. I never wanted to once complain because at the end of the day I kept telling Ram (director Ram Madhvani) I get to leave this flight and she never got to leave this flight. She sacrificed her life, so how can I ever complain. So that’s what I got from it.
Ruchi: How was it working with Ram? Is he a perfectionist or does he give space to the artist to improvise?
Sonam: He is a Gemini like me. We are both very, very similar and I am very much into a lot of detail. I like things a certain way and so does Ram. That’s why we meshed so beautifully together. Ram and I as personalities are very similar. You know, Ram is just me 20 years from now. I hope I evolve to become like him but he keeps saying that “20 years ago I was very much like you, I was very straight talking, quite blunt, wanted things a certain way. I was extremely principled”. Artistically and creatively we are very idealistic and I think that our harmonious relationship comes across on screen.
Ruchi: Is the script of the movie written in consultation with any of the surviving passengers who remember their experience of the fateful day? How much of the story bears resemblance to true facts and figures?
Sonam: Yes of course. Honestly, the writers Saiwyn Quadras and Sanyuktha Chawla Sheikh are amazing. Ram is extremely detail-oriented. We have done whatever we could do as honestly as we could do and the best thing is for the public to watch the film and understand how much effort we’ve put in to make it as real and as honest and as respectful as possible.
Ruchi: Do you think that there has been enough acknowledgement and celebration of her bravery as a woman?
Sonam: Well, yes the reason we decided to make the film about three years ago was that not many people had heard of her. Thirty years ago, yes she was very famous and we were like we need to make the film, she is this unsung hero becomes heroic again and people can get inspired by her.
Ruchi: This is a very woman centric role. Do you ever compare notes with your father about how female roles have evolved today?
Sonam: You know honestly, my father always wanted me to do central character roles from the very beginning. And my sister and I got inspired by that and my third film was a film called Aisha. After that I have several films such as ‘Ranjhanaa’, ‘Khoobsurat’, ‘Dolly Ki Doli’, ‘Bewakoofiyan’ where the female characters are extremely strong and Neerja is one other such role. I am trying to do what I can so that I can get inspired creatively. Even if I have to do a film like ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’, which is clearly a Salman Khan film, the character that I play has to have depth, otherwise there is no point doing a film. I do one or two films in a year and I’d rather do films that have me do something or there is characters ask. I do not want to be a showpiece in a film or an exotic beautiful girl in a movie. I need to have depth and substance.
Ruchi: Neerja was a victim of dowry harassment, as are so many women in India even today which is so sad. What message would you like to give the people who still harass women and their families?
Sonam: I really, really want all women to watch this film to understand what Neerja was about. How she always wanted to stand up to bullies and for herself. Her mother Rama Bhanot once told me that all Neerja wanted to do was stand up for herself. And everything that happened to her in her life was preparing her for that day, where she had to stand up to men who were bullying her. That is beautifully juxtaposed in the film. And you need to watch this to get inspired. I hope women and families can get inspired by how Neerja’s family dealt with everything including her death. I do not want to say much more because too much will get revealed but you need to watch the film.
Ruchi: Sonam, lastly has this been the most challenging role of your career till date? What is your key learning as an actress and as a human being from Neerja?
Sonam: Honestly, with every film I feel that this is the most challenging. Whether it was ‘Raanjhanaa’, ‘Khoobsurat’ or ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’. Every film comes with a different set of challenges. Neerja was extremely challenging but I also got a lot from it. But with every film I try to learn something. My ambition in life is to stretch myself as an artist, as a human being and to become a better artist. That is my endeavour. I hope I can take what I have learnt from Neerja to my next film and I hope people can see the growth in me as an actor in every film.