Salman Khan was still tickling Sonam Kapoor with a white feather on the hoardings of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo when a comparatively small-budget film made its way to theatres this February. Neerja, a biopic about a 22-year-old head purser who gave her life trying to save 359 passengers on board the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986, was one of the most anticipated films of the year. Neerja Bhanot’s was an inspirational story of an ordinary Bombay girl who displayed extraordinary courage and quick-thinking, saving precious lives.
But what kept people on tenterhooks was that Neerja was being played by Sonam Kapoor, who always had a huge question mark looming over her acting credentials, and who usually made news for her Gaultier gowns. Most film critics recoiled in horror when she’d been cast by director Ram Madhvani. But when the film hit theatres, it took them, and the rest of us, by surprise. It seemed Sonam had finally learned the difference between posing on the red carpet and playing a character.
In the first few scenes, Sonam looks every bit a bubbly 22-year-old. It is the sort of character she has played in almost all her previous films. But about 20 minutes in, you’ll have trouble remembering that the girl on screen is Sonam. It is difficult to trace the exact point when Anil Kapoor’s daughter becomes Rama Bhanot’s ‘Laado’.
The first scene in which she makes a mark as an actress is when Neerja, just released from gunpoint, locks herself in the plane’s toilet even as a terrorist beats on the door. It’s the moment Neerja transforms from scared airhostess to unwitting hero. The scene cuts to a flashback with Neerja contemplating walking out on her abusive husband. It ends with her father’s words, asking her never to be scared to stand up for what is right. And Sonam simply stands up and delivers. Did you think she had it in her? Neither did we.
No ordinary task
This is Sonam’s first attempt at portraying an actual person and the actress says that being able to identify with Neerja helped play her convincingly. “She went to Bombay Scottish School and St Xavier’s College,” Sonam says. “She took up modelling and became a flight attendant. I know so many girls with a similar background. Neerja could have been any of my friends. She was the girl-next-door.” But this also made things difficult – how do you play such an ordinary girl and yet make her distinct on screen?
“It is always difficult to play a real-life person, unlike in the case of a fictional character, where the audience has no reference points. But in the case of Neerja, there was no crutch I could use to become her. She didn’t have any physical trait that set her apart,” Sonam points out. She worked to sound like the Bombay-bred Neerja, hair and make-up artists supplied the bob and look. But Neerja was more than that. “There was a certain energy, a glint, a laughter, a noor in her that made her stand out in the crowd,” the actress observes. “She had a joie de vivre. Her idealism and principles made her what she was.”
So, instead of drawing on stock mannerisms, Sonam went to the people who knew the 22-year-old – friends, family, colleagues – to understand what made this seemingly ordinary girl do something deserving of three bravery awards from three countries in death.
The long and short of it
The shoot was wrapped up in just 31 days. But the process was intense and exhaustive. To recreate what the Pan Am passengers must have gone through in the traumatic 16 hours they were held hostage, Madhvani and his crew shot the whole plane sequence in just 12 hours. Four cameras joined the cast in the confined insides of a plane. The takes were long, the close-ups tight. There was little room to work with, and little room for error.
Some takes would go on for two hours, Madhvani says. “Sonam was not only okay with putting herself through such taxing conditions, she also embraced it and executed the scenes with finesse. I often say that I can push an actor but the actor has to land.” Sonam even hurt herself while shooting. On the 12th day, just as they wrapped up, she flew out for Cannes where she walked the red carpet, covering her bruises with makeup. “As an actor, Sonam’s biggest strength is that she is self-punishing,” points out Madhvani. “She gets so emotionally involved that it affects her health. This is also her biggest weakness.”
Read: Neerja review
Madhvani’s favourite scene from the film is the one that comes almost near the end. It features an exhausted Neerja, resigned to the fact that the siege is out of her control, taking a seat to read the letter her boyfriend gave her just before she boarded that fateful flight. “As she reads those lines where he asks her to marry him, she becomes increasingly aware that she might never see him or any of her loved ones again,” Madhvani explains. “It was an incredibly sensitive scene and required a lot of control. Sonam got into the skin of the character and I don’t think anybody else could have done so much justice to the role.”
Later, much after the shoot, Madhvani’s team realised they needed to dub one word since the letter had been rewritten after the scene was filmed. “Instead of just adding the word, Sonam dubbed the whole scene, putting herself through the same emotional journey all over again.”
For Sonam, the scene that is closest to her heart comes in the first half, where a flashback shows her reading her estranged husband’s letter aloud to her mother. The few lines indicate the nature of their brief marriage – a relationship marked by abuse, power struggles and little love. “What it stood for was so beautiful. This girl knows that she is right in deciding to end her relationship with a man who has emotionally tormented her from the first day of their marriage and written horrible things about her to her father,” Sonam says. “Yet she is reading out those ugly letters to her mother to make her understand what the man has put her through. That stands for every modern girl who knows what she is doing is right but needs validation from her loved ones, especially her parents.”
The closeness echoes in Sonam’s own household. By all accounts, Sonam, her sister Rhea, her brother Harshvardhan and their parents appear close-knit, much like the Bhanots.
But her performance certainly caused some surprise at home. “It is a heart-breaking but inspiring story. But at the same time it is a story of a mother losing her daughter and I knew my mom would respond to that part the most,” Sonam says. But, when she told her mother about her concern, Sunita Kapoor, who has seen her husband Anil die on screen many times in the last 30 years, laughed it off.
Still, when it came to watching her daughter facing imminent death on celluloid, it was a different Sunita altogether. “We had to take her home during the interval. She was too overwhelmed by then and was in no condition to sit through the second half. She was proud of my work but was very emotional for the next five days. Arjun [Kapoor, her cousin] hasn’t seen the film yet because of the same reason… This is ridiculous!”
All part of the journey
As viewers come away similarly moved and Sonam basks in this new-found glory, she wonders why people are calling Neerja a turning point in her nine-year career. She’s worked hard in all her movies, she argues. Even when she was an annoying Aisha (2010), a bumbling Disney princess in Khoobsurat (2014) and, well, the decorative scenery in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. “It was again a kind of first for me,” she says of the 2015 blockbuster. “I had never worked with such a big star before and also the world the Barjatyas create in their movies is very far removed from the realities of our Juhu house. Saying some of the dialogues convincingly was rather difficult. Similarly, Neerja is the first dramatic biopic I attempted.” She’s taking the critical acclaim with a pinch of salt: “They had also called Raanjhanaa (2013) a turning point in my career.”
Anand L Rai, who had directed Sonam in Raanjhanaa, believes that Sonam has grown much in the last three years, but he’s hardly surprised. He says that Sonam is an apt choice for a biopic like this because “she doesn’t play to her strengths and doesn’t let her own mannerisms creep into the character”. He recollects a scene in Raanjhanaa where Sonam, who plays Zoya, confesses her love for Kundan (played by Dhanush), who was instrumental in getting her boyfriend (Abhay Deol) killed. “Duniya thookegi mujhpe Kundan, agar pyar kar liya tujhse. Par dekh, pyar kar hi liya na,” Zoya says. But, she delivers her lines while pushing him towards certain death. “The strange mix of love and hatred she has for Kundan that finally comes out in the open in this scene was not easy to portray,” Rai says. “The way she did it gave me a glimpse of what she is capable of.”
Keeping it real
Coming from a family of actors and producers, Sonam is well aware that whatever goes up comes down and is determined to stay grounded through the current wave of adulation. “I will not be surprised if those who are saying that Neerja is a turning point for me and applauding my performance, make a complete U-turn six months from now when I walk the red carpet at Cannes and turn me back into ‘just a style icon’ again,” says the actress. But she adds, “I am not ashamed to be fashionable. If I am fashionable I take it as a compliment. My taste in things comes from the way I was brought up. You can’t make me feel ashamed of it. And where does it say that a style icon can’t be a good actress? I’ll keep flaunting my biggest gowns, wear the most beautiful makeup, get the most gorgeous hairdo done, and do the films I want to do. I am not going to wear a jeans and a kurta for people to take me seriously. That is not what I am and I refuse to pretend otherwise. I love the fact that I can be a style icon and still pull off a Raanjhanaa and a Neerja.”
And she’s not listening to any taunts about how hailing from an illustrious film family has made her journey smoother. Sonam recollects that when she first started out, people were almost pushing her to be resentful of the fact that Anil Kapoor was her father. “They would say ‘Oh, she gets to do what she wants because of her father’. Yes, I do! But my father has worked damn hard for over 30 years to make sure that his children get what they want,” she says. “To those who think I was born with a silver spoon, I would clarify that the spoon was a gold one.”
What’s next? Will Sonam pick her roles more judiciously now that she has proved her acting chops? She breaks into laughter. “I have done just 12 films in nine years! How much more choosy can I get? I don’t want to turn into Aamir Khan! I can’t take myself too seriously,” she says. Sorry critics, she has no inclination to follow Neerja up with a slew of serious women-centric films. “I might do an Aisha 2, just to dash their expectations,” she says.
But beneath the gorgeous makeup, the love for designer gowns, the new turn as a dramatic actress and that laugh, Sonam reveals just a hint of the desires she harbours. “I want to be an action hero,” she says. “It will be fun to get into leather pants and kick some a**! How do they do that in leather pants? I can barely move in them! I am this geek who is obsessed with Batman and Superman. I have watched Avengers almost a hundred times. I want to put on a rubber suit and a mask, and do a roundhouse kick. Why can’t they make an Indian vigilante? Although I know the critics will hate it if I do such a film!”
On A Role
Sonam has been in Bollywood for nine years. She’s had her fair share of hits and flops, but unlike her colleagues, she has always been considered more of a diva than an actor
Sonam’s debut, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights, was a snoozefest and was panned by the critics and the masses alike. But Sonam, as Sakina, managed to somewhat impress, even though she had a badly written character and had to mouth some awful lines
Sonam played the affable Bittu Sharma in this film directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. She imbued freshness into the role of a girl from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Critics fell in love with her and some even called it a ’firecracker’ performance
I Hate Luv Storys (2010)
The makers must have had zombies in mind as the target audience when they made this spoof on love stories. It got little love at the box office. Sonam looked stiff and delivered her lines with the emotion of a robot. But she retained her fashion sense
This story set in a small town had a big heart and won Sonam quite a few acting nominations. She played Zoya from Banaras in a tragic love triangle, starring Dhanush and Abhay Deol. She had a comparatively complex character but didn’t give the critics an opportunity to complain
Sonam fit her Disney princess role like a glove and also had the very dishy Fawad Khan to pull the audiences to the theatres. Although the film was not remotely close to the Hrishikesh Mukherjee original, Sonam was endearing as the bumbling and goofy Mili Chakravarty.
Things we didn’t know about Sonam Kapoor before this interview:
1. She insists she’s fat. She looks at me and says, “You and I, we’re the Indian body type.” Well, the last time I checked, I weighed dangerously close to 80 kilos. (She is coming up with a clothing line for women who like to dress fashionably but don’t have model-like bodies.)
2. Anil Kapoor is the most encouraging father ever. Even during school plays, he never saw Sonam as anything less than ‘amazing’. #dadgoals
3.Coldplay is one of her all-time favourite bands and she agreed to a cameo in Hymn For The Weekend only after she was promised a backstage entry to meet the band at their next concert.
4. She believes in balance. Salad is almost always followed by a slice of cake.
5. She was body shamed on social media, and although she kept her chin up, it hurt.
6. She is a hardcore comic book fan and binges on Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk and X-Men. She can’t wait to watch Deadpool and she has a Star Wars phone cover.
7. She and Ranveer Singh are ‘very distant relatives’ – and NOT really cousins. Now, that changes everything.
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From HT Brunch, March 13, 2016
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