Ram Madhvani brings his ad-film skills to the big screen with Neerja

  • Aparna Pednekar
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2016 01:09 IST
Ram Madhvani brings his ad-film skills to the big screen. (Photo by Pramod Thakur/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

Mention his 13-year hiatus from feature films and Ram Madhvani says, “Let’s just make it 14 years because of my name.” Then he chuckles, just so you’re clear he’s not equating himself with a Hindu deity.

Madhvani is on the big screen for the second time with Neerja, a film about the Pan Am flight attendant Neerja Bhanot who died saving lives when her flight was hijacked in 1986. His last outing on the big screen was the 2002 flick Let’s Talk, and “the middle years were disappointing,” he admits. But he’s pretty philosophical about it. “I’ve given my disappointment a time limit. I mope for 24 hours, then move on.”

Desi Mad Men

Could that skill at quick-recovery come from his experience in advertising? The 30-second ad-film training ground has bred some of the world’s most legendary filmmakers, from Ridley Scott to Rajkumar Hirani.

His own style, Madhvani insists, is steadfastly Indian, thanks to a “very Indian and very English” childhood, divided between Barshi in Solapur and boarding school in Panchgani, during which he imbibed a gamut of influences.

“I’m desperately interested in the Indian aesthetic,” he says. “The British colonised us culturally and the Americans have colonised us psychologically. It worries me.”

It’s what brought him back to India after NYU film school to join Sumantra Ghosal’s Equinox Films, where he became a partner in two years.

“Ram’s style is unique,” says Laura Gregory, chairman and executive producer at the London production company, Great Guns, which represents him. She says it was only a matter of time before Madhvani turned to the big screen. “It’s an easy transition for someone who’s made advertising pieces that look like mini movies, and have all the emotion of a much bigger film.”

Madhvani’s recent Kindle TV spot made the Great Guns team reach for their hankies; his idiosyncratic Happydent ad won bronze and silver lions at Cannes in 2006 and was recently named one of the world’s 20 best ad films of the 21st century; and young people across college campuses absentmindedly hum Airtel’s ‘Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai’ jingle, which featured in the commercial Madhvani shot.

“That’s our quest as storytellers, to become part of the conversation,” he says. “As a filmmaker, you’re either a visualist or a humanist. I prefer being a humanist. I’m interested in making you laugh, cry and having a dialogue with you. As a society, we’ve become so numb to loss and pain that – unfortunately – we need the outlet of art and cinema to feel. It’s cathartic.”

Har Ek Emotion Zaroori Hota Hai

Atul Kasbekar, celebrity photographer and Neerja’s producer says Madhvani was “karmically ordained to direct Neerja”. Both moved in the same circles as Neerja Bhanot, who was also a model. But it cut closer home: a friend of Madhvani’s had shot an ad with Neerja just before she took the ill-fated Pan Am Flight 73, on September 5, 1986.

Launching into 36 months of research on the script, Madhvani recalls walking into the Bhanots’ Chandigarh home with Sonam Kapoor. “Neerja’s mother, Rama, said, ‘Arre! Yeh to laado aa gayi’. She was also present when we began shooting at the plane set erected in Borivli, and applied a teeka to all 100 of our crew members,” he says. “The worst thing in the world is to lose a child. But she was incredibly positive and energetic; always telling everyone ‘Jeete raho, khush raho, mast raho’.”

The mother-daughter story also involved what Madhvani calls the “daunting” task of directing Shabana Azmi. Madhvani visited her at Breach Candy Hospital when her own mother was ill, just two days before they were to shoot a crucial scene. “She asked me to give her the scene and began acting it out then and there. And she was spot-on emotionally. My wife and I had tears in our eyes.”

Buckle up: Ram Madhvani’s first film since 2002 is a biopic about the brave Pan Am stewardess Neerja Bhanot.

The Non-Don Draper

In an industry dominated by the stereotype of the adman as a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, smooth-talking creep, Madhvani comes across as an anomaly. Kasbekar, who first met him almost two decades ago for a Duke’s Lemonade ad, says he is “fully receptive” to any new idea from anyone on the crew. “But he’s the boss,” Kasbekar also points out. “His is the final call at the editing table. And I weave a protective cocoon around him!”

Anil Thakraney, former advertising writer, author and senior journalist has worked with Madhvani too. “If you’re looking for someone to say something negative about Ram, good luck with that.” But there are a few chinks in Madhvani’s nice-guy armour. Gregory reveals that Madhvani, most ironically, has a fear of flying! Ask him if it’s true and he shrugs: “I don’t know what courage is, but I do know fear”.

From HT Brunch, February 28, 2016

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