Bollywood is loved and loathed for its melodramatic singing and choreographed dance sequences, but one new film hoping to show a different side to the Indian movie industry is Neerja. Directed by Ram Madhvani, who worked on 2002’s Let’s Talk, which tackled some hard-hitting issues, this new film is a biopic based on the true story of Neerja Bhanot, a young flight attendant who sacrificed her life while protecting 359 passengers from hijackers on Pan Am flight 73 in 1986.
The titular character is played by Sonam Kapoor, one of India’s top actresses, usually seen in more romantic roles such as 2015’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, and Dolly Ki Doli. She also landed a cameo in Coldplay’s new video Hymn for the Weekend. We meet at The St. Regis Dubai ahead of the film’s release, where she tells us about portraying a national hero and how she hopes to bring a dose of reality to Indian cinemas.
Neerja became a hero after her death. Was her story something you grew up with?
No, and it’s strange because she should have been really famous. She got the highest bravery award in India, she got the highest bravery award in Pakistan, and an award in America. She should be someone everyone knows about.
What attracted you to this role?
What I found incredible about the story was that she was an ordinary girl, she went to a regular school, she did a little bit of modelling because she was pretty and she wanted to travel the world. But what was different about her was her set of principles and her character. There are so many biopics about people who do extraordinary things or who are wonderfully talented, but all she did was her duty and the right thing.
What did you do to prepare?
Prep involved trying to capture this person’s soul. She had a really strong sense of self, and she was confused about love – all those things regular girls have. She was a normal girl. I’m not sure how normal I am, but it’s not like I was doing The Revenant and running around shooting people or having to be all aggro. I just had to understand how compassionate she was.
Did you have any reservations about being involved with the movie?
The only hesitation I had was about doing a biopic. Neerja was a hero and her friends and family were very protective of her and her memory, and I thought, “I hope I don’t screw that up”.
What was the biggest challenge for you?
Learning how to be an air hostess, which is more difficult than they tell you it is. It’s not only about service. In fact, 70 percent of the training is around safety, so I had to learn all of that. I have a lot of respect for anybody flying me now.
The film is political in nature. Do you think it signifies a change in tone in Indian cinema?
I hope there is a change in Indian cinema. I think we’re pushing ourselves a lot. We’ve had the golden period, which was in the ’60s and ’70s, and then after that it just went downhill. The kinds of films made in the past two to three years are really different and I think Neerja is a little more off-kilter. Hopefully, if it does well, it will open a huge can of worms. This story is so relevant to our times because of terrorism, divisive politics and acceptance.
Tell us about the Coldplay music video.
My agent asked if wanted to do a cameo, and I was like, “Er, yeah.” Then they asked what I wanted and I said, “Just VIP access to the concert”. I grew up with songs like Yellow, so it’s like an ode from a fan.
Neerja is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday February 18.
Three top flying flicks
This comedy is one of the first movies that springs to mind when you think of airline flicks. Starring Leslie Nielsen and directed by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, it spoofs disaster movies, as a man afraid to fly is tasked with safely landing the plane.
Directed by Frank Marshall (Arachnophobia), this gripping drama tells the real story of the 1972 Uruguyan rugby team on their way to Chile. When their plane crashes over the Andes, the survivors turn to desperate measures to stay alive.
Denzel Washington won an Oscar nomination for his role as an airline pilot in this film. The thriller depicts how he saves almost all his passengers on his malfunctioning plane, but the investigation into the accident uncovers more than just mechanical failure.