Neerja is a biopic and a cinematic representation of the dramatic events that unfolded on September 5th, 1986 when Pan Am Flight 73 from Bombay to New York was hijacked in transit at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi by Palestinian extremists from Abu Nidal’s terrorist outfit. This is the story of Neerja Bhanot, a 22-year-old part time model, who was the head purser on the flight. Neerja had escaped an abusive marriage and, as a life change, decided to become an airhostess, subsequently impressing everyone so much that they made her a purser.
Throughout the horrifying ordeal, Neerja didn’t succumb to her fears and instead fought her personal demons from the past and, from the minute the plane was hijacked through the terrifying 17 hours to the grueling end, used her courage, wits and compassion to make sure the passengers were protected, going so far as to hide the passports of the American passengers. Through her swift thinking and brave actions, she managed to save the lives of 359 passengers and crew on board out of 379, all at the cost of her own life.
Neerja was hailed internationally as ‘the heroine of the hijack’ and posthumously became the youngest recipient of India’s highest civilian honour for bravery, the Ashoka Chakra. She was also bestowed the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism award by USA, the Tamgha-e-Insaaniyat (awarded for showing incredible human kindness) by Pakistan, the Justice for Crimes Award by United States Attorney’s Office for the district of Columbia, the Special Courage Award by the US government and the Indian Civil Aviation Ministry’s Award.
Speaking to BollySpice, Sonam Kapoor spoke about playing the title character in the film and much more.
You’ve had a great last year and are starting off 2016 with Neerja. How are you feeling?
I am super kicked about Neerja. I really believe in the film. I also really believe in what Neerja stood for. I am really excited for people to now watch the movie and take something away from it.
Audiences would not expect to see you in a film like Neerja. How did it come about?
I don’t like to give audiences what they expect. I like to mix it up. I like to do something different with every film. My agent was working on making this film. Everything just fell into place organically as it’s such a beautiful story and very well-written script. We just wanted to make it badly. We wanted everyone to know her story since it’s so inspiring and everything became really easy because everyone has the same mind-set about it. Neerja is an unsung hero and we wanted her to become heroic again.
Bling!, who manage your career, are producing the film. Was that a comfortable aspect of being a part of such a sensitive film?
It wasn’t just Bling! but also Fox Star and the creative producer, Rucha Pathak. I have worked with her on many occasions previously. She was the one who put Khoobsurat together with my sister Rhea at Disney. She moved to Fox Star after Khoobsurat. I have worked with the people at Fox Star before too and I just knew that I was in good hands with all these people. Everyone just really believed in the film. I am really grateful to all these people who have shown immense commitment to the film.
20th Century Fox is releasing the film in UK cinemas. Do you feel the subject and the wide reach of the international studio can make the film go mainstream in the UK?
We are releasing the film in UK cinemas with English subtitles. I am not aware of how wide the release is. It can definitely attract a mainstream audience and I hope it does well abroad. I’m sure if it catches on, Fox will increase the cinema screens.
Composer Shekhar Ravjiani is part of the film as well, which is surprising. How did that happen?
Shekhar plays a cameo in the film. You need to watch the film to explore what he is doing in the film. Honestly, all credit goes to Atul Kasbekar and my director Ram Madhvani to get him on board. He is a musician but he is a lovely human being and I have known him for many years. It’s great to have him a part of Neerja.
How much has the story of Neerja been changed for cinematic adaptation?
We have not amended anything of the original story. We have to be really sensitive as there are survivors who are alive and we did not want to change anything just for the sake of it. It’s best for people to watch the film and judge for themselves.
What’s next for you after Neerja?
I don’t want to reveal it because all my energy is dedicated towards Neerja at the moment. A week after the release, there will an announcement.
Neerja is produced by Fox Star Studios and co-produced by Bling Unplugged and has been directed by celebrated ad film director, Ram Madhvani. Actress Sonam Kapoor is playing the role of the young brave heart and adding to the cast is veteran and internationally renowned actress, Shabana Azmi, playing the role of Neerja’s mother.