Ram Madhvani's Neerja, starring Sonam Kapoor, has scored big time with critics as well as audiences. As of Tuesday, the film has reportedly grossed Rs 50 crore at the box-office, according to Box Office India. Reviews all around the board have been positive, with many singling out Kapoor's performance as a career-best for the 30-year-old actress [here's this writer's take on the movie].
HuffPost India met Kapoor and Madhvani at the former's father Anil Kapoor's office in suburban Mumbai. The two have just returned from Delhi and are full of stories of how people are reacting to the movie, based on the final hours of slain flight attendant Neerja Bhanot's life during the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986. "People are coming up to us and saying 'thank you'," says Kapoor, with a smile. "That's extremely gratifying." Madhvani adds: "Yesterday, we were on a flight and one of the air-hostesses came up to us and said, 'People are now looking at me with respect'."
The film's success and continuing, strong word-of-mouth has prompted its producers to widen its release in its ongoing second week, raising its reach from 700 to 900 screens across the country. This is contrary to what happens with most commercial films, which usually lose a large portion of the audience after the opening weekend; however, Neerja's collections have stayed impressive even on weekdays. "It shows that people have loved the film and the film has legs," says Madhvani. "All credit goes to the director, since cinema is a director's medium," says Kapoor (Madhvani puts up a half-hearted protest at this statement before smiling indulgently at the floor). "As an actor, I can give him a graph and a range of emotions. I can play my instrument as beautifully as possible, but he's the conductor of the orchestra. If a conductor doesn't do his job well, the music doesn't sound right."
Madhvani credits the success of the film to a number of things, including his producers' faith in the project, the cast and crew he worked with, and the processes they followed, such as shooting the film in real-time. "The job of a director is to have the vision, but he also needs the backing of his crew members and consensus from everybody to follow a certain process. Thanks to people like Fox [Fox Star Studios, who co-produced the film], Sonam, Shabana [Azmi, who plays Neerja's mother in the film], these ideas were nurtured and protected.
Kapoor calls the experience of working on the film as being part of an "acting class", since many scenes required some sort of improvisation.
The entire film was shot in a set, designed to the last detail by the film's production designer Apurva Sud ("Hats off to her," says Madhvani), situated in Borivali, Mumbai. The crew didn't refer to the people playing the roles of passengers on the plane as 'junior artistes' or 'extras' — they were all credited as 'featured cast' members. "I wish I could have given each and every one of them a close-up," he rues, adding that he personally apologised to some of them for not being able to do so.
One of the reasons the film feels so natural is because of the way Madhvani elicited certain reactions from his actors. One of the film's standout scenes — in which a hijacker named Khalil (played by Jim Sarbh) forces Neerja to sing a Hindi film song at gunpoint for his amusement — was deliberately omitted from the copy of the script sent to Kapoor; he merely told her a few weeks before the shoot to learn the lyrics to a few Rajesh Khanna songs. "It was a deliberate googly," he says, with an uproarious laugh. "We didn't tell her, but we told Jim and some of the passengers. Other times, there were some things we would tell Sonam and the flight attendants, but not the passengers; and sometimes the other way around. So, basically, we tried to capture people's natural reactions and that's what you see in the film."
Kapoor calls the experience of working on the film as being part of an "acting class", since many scenes required some sort of improvisation. Praise for her performance has been unanimous — something that has only happened with a tiny fraction of the films she's done in her 9-year-long career.
Does she feel vindicated? She laughs: "I think everyone should be open to criticism because it helps you understand your work. But earlier, I used to feel that there would be a certain section [of critics] who would always come from a place of judgement, even though there has been plenty out there that's been completely fair. Now, I think I've realised that perhaps I was being too harsh on them for just doing their jobs."
Now, she says she has understood what is going on and has learnt what she was doing wrong earlier. "I'm now ready to rattle the cage," she says.
Neerja is being counted as part of what is somewhat perplexingly referred to as the wave of 'content-driven cinema' in Bollywood, but Madhvani feels it's very much a mainstream film. "It is working in single-screens in Ranchi as well as at PVR Phoenix [in Mumbai's Lower Parel area]," he says. "It isn't 'arthouse' in any way. I keep telling people that ismein drama hai, romance hai, aur dance bhi hai." At this point, he dissolves into a fit of giggles at his own joke.
"What is commercial or arthouse anyway?" asks Sonam, over the sound of his laughter. "I hate these terms. A good film is a good film is a good film."
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