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Neerja is the Role Model I Was Looking For :Sonam Kapoor

Neerja, the film that recreates the life and fatal last flight of Neerja Bhanot, the stewardess who saved countless lives on the hijacked plane Pan Am Clipper 73, is a film Sonam Kapoor is proud to be part of. She spoke about what moved her most about the character she gets to play and what it was like getting under her skin:

Q) There are so many aspects to figures like Neerja, what was the one thing about her that you were drawn to? The one thing where you said 'I need to play this character, that I have to do justice to her'?

A) When I heard the story I didn't even have the script. I knew she was a girl from Bombay Scottish, that she went to Xaviers College, that she was a model and that she had this beauty, but she also had this very strong sense of right and wrong, she had a very strong set of principles and for me, that was something I really identified with. It's something I have been fighting for since I came into adulthood and started working in my industry. That very strong sense of right and wrong. That complete lack of self preservation when it comes to fighting for something you believe in, which I believe in my very small way that I have.

Also I feel I didn't have a role model that I could follow, you know? You look at people like Sarojini Naidu? But after Independence? You look at people from contemporary India, young India and for me, that role model was not there. I found Neerja and I thought this is my role model. If you'd asked two-and-a-half or three years ago who my heroes were, I would have said: Lata Mangeshkar, Sarojini Naidu, Mother Teresa, Katherine Hepburn, all for various reasons... but I didn't have a role model for that someone who stands up for what I believe in: to do my duty, to have self respect, to be a desh bhakt but not in the way... (NDTV: the way the narrative has been stolen today).. yes. In a way where I was doing my duty, but not blindly. Have unconditional love for your country for its people, but do it in a way where you have all your faculties around you.

So, if I am going to criticize something, it comes from a place of love, it doesn't come from a place of hate. I was just talking to my mother and I was like 'You know, Mom, it's so sad what's happening right now, the one thing I was hoping for is that as an actor, as a 'celebrity" I don't want sycophants and yes-men around me because I feel it stunts your growth.' And I feel that's whats happening in India right now. There is no room for dialogue and there is no room for criticism and that is the one thing that can actually propel growth. Dialogue and discussions.

Q) And again, the sense that a story that played out 30 years ago is still relevant today? All the things Neerja and her family stood for...

A) I realized this was someone I can look at as someone who is aspirational. And we do not have enough aspirational strong female heroes. She saved everyone's life. She did not differentiate between an Indian, an American, a Pakistani's life, and that is what a true Indian is. We are the largest democracy and if you know the true definition of a democracy is you will understand what I mean: we are secular, we are the only country in the history of the world that hasn't invaded another country. So all these things put together, she is a true definition of what India stands for.

Q) So when you see, for example, what happened at Patiala House and with the JNU protests, what do you feel about it, do you feel it is your place to speak up?

A) You know I would love to speak about it, but right now when I'm looking at it, looks like a bunch of animals with no intellect going at each other. So I feel it's irrelevant to comment right now, it's more relevant to comment on the future of what dialogue should be like. It shouldn't be a mess! It should be adults talking with their faculties around them, not overreacting, not screaming and shouting, it should be more rational. So for me I don't want to add to fervor but I do believe in having.. for example, Mr Modi saying he wants a Swachh Bharat is a constructive way of saying he wants the country to be clean. Now indirectly it is a criticsm of the country...

Q) And some would say that cleaning up the country doesn't necessarily apply just to litter?

A) Exactly. It's a noble thought to clean India. Doesn't necessarily mean it's a criticism of India. People can say: do you think the country's dirty? Well it is! And for me, it's a constructive way to look at it. For me what is missing right now is rational, calm dialogue, and inspirational and motivational ways of doing things-and you can do that through art, cinema, literature. It's about remembering what India actually stands for, and I hope with Neerja that people realise that. Because I love my country and it saddens to me to see it this way.

Q) Has playing Neerja, walking in her shoes changed you in anyway?

A) You know, the only reason I choose to do films ... I've been around for 8 or 9 years and done 11 films, so you can understand why I chose Neerja, because I feel the only reason we are here is to evolve. And with every film and every character I hope to learn and evolve. Whether it was Milli from Khoobsurat, the idea of saying I will not change for anybody is what she stands for. It's a very strong characteristic which shows what a boy and girl should both have. So the idea that people say 'Oh, youre playing strong women characters?'-yes, I am. Yes, I am a feminist, but at the same time I'm not only doing it for the girls I'm doing it for the boys as well. Even boys make a choice everyday. And with Neerja, I hope boys and girls get inspired to say it's ok to stand for what is right, in fact it's heroic to do it.

Q) A lot of people in your position would have chosen to market the film differently, keeping the focus on themselves and you've determinedly kept Neerja's character front and center?

A) I remember we were having a marketing meeting at Aamir Khan's house, and the first thing that was discussed was should we talk about Sonam's performance, should we make that a campaign and I vehemently said no. I've done my films, won my awards, proved what I had to prove. With Neerja I had to prove something else. I decided to become an actor for certain reasons: I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to do certain things and certain films that give legs to films like Neerja. When I am promoting a film like PRDP, we can talk about all of that , but when I'm doing a film like Neerja which I have done with a very strong sense of idealism, I don't want that to be sullied by I, me, myself. And I am very sure of that. I do not believe in blowing my own trumpet because for me it was not a brave choice, it was a choice I made because it was the only choice to make. To me bravery is acting in the face of fear, I was not fearful of that choice. I thought it was something I just had to do and I did it in two seconds.

Q) What is the one that you discovered about her and the one thing that was hardest to shoot? There was homework and deep research I know, how deeply you chose to immerse yourself in her world?

A) But that's what I do for all my films...

Q) But not all films are real life characters?

A) Yes, so I will explain the difference: when I am doing a real life character and a fictional character there are marked differences, pros and cons. Now, the pros of doing a character like Neerja is: I don't need to get that backstory, I don't need to create everything from scratch, the way she walked or the way she looked, her likes and dislikes, personality traits etc. The con to it, is there already a preconceived notion of how she is, there's an image in her family's head, there's an image in her friends' heads, the worlds' heads since she's a national hero. So now we have to live upto that. It was not like a Milkha Singh or a Mary Kom or a pianist where I had to learn a skill, no need to run, or box, or change the way I look. I was playing an ordinary girl and I had to capture her spirit and that was difficult. To capture the spirit of a girl who was idealistic, honest, clear-sighted. Her eyes had this brightness to them, a steadiness which only comes with pureheartedness. There was a 'noor' to her face which I had to capture. So I did all of that air-hostess training, cut my hair in a certain way, captured the body language, changed my voice..but that was superficial stuff. The soul of that, that was difficult.

Q) Was it difficult shooting the hijacking scenes? Would you find yourself putting yourself in her shoes?

A) I had no choice because Ram (Madhvani, Neerja's director) wanted to do it a certain way and did really long takes, and it was very, very emotionally draining but at the end it was cathartic. Because at the end after those 12-13 days of shooting when I was out of the plane I told Ram: I cannot believe I get to leave this plane. I cannot believe that Neerja did all these things, and those who lost their lives, and after that, it was like I was just acting... What have I done that's so great? She lost her life. I just acted.

Q) What is the message you hope people will take away from the film?

A) You do not have to be extraordinary to be heroic. You can be ordinary and have quailites, characteristic and principles that makes you heroic. She was an ordinary girl, a normal girl, who didn't have super powers like Batman or Superman, she was not trained like an Army officer or the Navy - she was just normal. You know Pan Am had written something beautiful about her (starts looking it up), I think it's in the book.

Q) Did you know Neerja's story before you started doing the film?

A) That's why I wanted to to do it. How can you forget a girl like this? How can you not know about this? The youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra and the first female to get it. How can you not know this! So, the very fact that I didn't was reason to do the film. I want that quote, it was beautifully said. This gist of it was: we didn't train her to be this way, there was something in her, a certain value. It was just in her.

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