The winners’ list for the 64th National Film Awards has been finally announced and the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Neerja, directed by Ram Madhvani, has been declared the Best Hindi Feature Film. So here’s a look back at an interview we did with the director for the March 2016 edition of MW where he discusses about his 14-year hiatus before he made Neerja, how he brought out the actor in Sonam Kapoor, and more. 

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Neerja, the director’s first film in 14 years, has won accolades for its sensitive portrayal of a brave woman — and for finally bringing out the actor in Sonam Kapoor. 

 

Has your phone stopped ringing since Neerja released?

It’s good that incoming calls are free! (laughs) What can I say! When they send me an SMS, it is easier for me to save it and print, and some day it might become a book. When people call you, you tend to forget what they all say. But there have been some unforgettable compliments. I got a call from somebody who is a part of the Gollapudi Srinivas Awards. Mr Maruti Rao, the father of Gollapudi Srinivas, called and said ‘You have made a life-sized film’. They had earlier honoured me for my first film, Let’s Talk. Another great comment was from an air hostess. She thanked us for making a film that has now made people respect her job. The third was from a person who said that now, people are not asking, “Are you liking the film?” They are asking, “How are you feeling?” Neerja’s brothers Aneesh and Akhil also complimented us. I would not like to reveal what they said, but Sonam and I had tears in our eyes. I don’t think such accolades come often in a filmmaker’s life.

A 14-year hiatus is unusual for a director. Were you too busy with ads, or did no script interest you?

I have wanted to make cinema since I was 16. To me, this is like the sacred altar. Cinema is a vehicle, and the destination is self-discovery. I am very happy that I am able to practice on this clay. Part of the clay is obviously advertising. In those 14 years, I made a documentary on Amitabh Bachchan called Everlasting Light, I did two songs for Taare Zameen Par and Satyamev Jayate. I am not a very profitable advertising director, I must tell you, though it seems like it is not true. But while I was doing all these, I was also trying to make other films. And a lot of films did not quite work out. It was frustrating.

Talisman included…

Yes; one of the reasons Talisman did not work out was because we were not happy with the script — neither Vidhu Vinod Chopra, nor Swanand Kirkire nor myself — after spending over two and a half years and making 14 drafts.

In hindsight, I realize something that I did not realize in those 14 years — there is a force. A force tells you that something is coming up and keeps you going. When the time is right, things work out. I do believe that this film is blessed. I am indebted to Atul Kasbekar for asking me to direct it. Sonam said yes, Shabanaji said yes, Fox Star green-lit the project and that’s huge. A director can have a vision and be able to pass on the vision, but somebody has to be out there protecting your vision.

What about the small section of people who knew Neerja, who have criticised the film for glorifying the incident?

Our responsibility was to try to make something honest. What Neerja did in the film was not at all fictional. She did open the emergency exit, she could have run out, but she did not. She did give the hijack code in the beginning, she was the head purser. She did die while protecting three children. She was one of the air hostesses who hid the American passports. She got the Ashoka Chakra and bravery awards from two other countries. She got it for human kindness from Pakistan. Nobody can take it away from her. Survivors and passengers that we have communicated with have told us that what we depicted is exactly what happened