MUMBAI — It’s her first biopic as the protagonist, though she played the dramatized version of Milkha Singh’s love in “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.” At Anil Kapoor’s swanky office in Juhu, which she is said to have partly designed, Sonam Kapoor is in a flurry as she fields the media. Quite obviously, her mood is upbeat, as the film has been special to her not only for doing the role of slain airhostess Neerja Bhanot, India’s youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra (the highest national award for bravery in peace time) but also for what Sonam Kapoor gained as a human being by doing so.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What struck you first about Neerja’s character?
A: That she was an ordinary girl who was so scared at the time that her bravery just emerged from within her spirit — and that’s real bravery for me, because when you are scared, it is your family values, sense of duty, principles and morals that make you what you are!
Neerja’s father was a journalist with the “Hindustan Times” and her mother a homemaker. She studied in Bombay Scottish School and was educated further at St. Xavier’s College. She wanted to be an airhostess, and later she was into modeling as well. So she was neither a trained military person nor superhero material. And yet she saved 359 lives at the age of 23 and sacrificed her life.
When I heard her story, it impacted me so much. And I felt that it would inspire everybody. It is her spirit that made her extraordinary. Her mother Rama aunty told me that just two weeks prior to the hijacking incident she had gone for hijack training, and, like all mothers will do, she told Neerja that if she was in a real-life situation like that, she should just run away from the trouble zone! And Neerja had retorted, “Mommy, what kind of a mother are you?”
Rama aunty had told me that the moment she heard that the ‘plane had been hijacked, she knew that Neerja would do something foolish and that she would not come back!
Q: Who else in real life inspires you?
A: Neerja’s the ordinary hero I look up to now. The rest are special in some way. I admire Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, who was a queen; Lata Mangeshkar, who is a ridiculously talented singer; Sarojini Naidu; and Meryl Streep — three years back, they would have been my only heroes. So when the script came to me, apart from the fact that Ram Madhvani was directing the film, I thought it would be an injustice to Neerja not to do the film.
Q: Recently, you got very emotional about Neerja.
A: Yes, because Rama aunty, who is played by Shabana Azmi-ji, passed away two days before our trailer launch. I wish she had watched at least my trailer. And imagine, she had even sent a message blessing us on that occasion!
Q: But you did present the annual Neerja Bhanot awards for bravery.
A: Yes, and I consider myself very lucky. And what have I done to get to play Neerja’s role? Who am I to honor such real-life heroes? I am only an actor! One of the award recipients was a war widow, who instead of grieving for herself, has set up a support system and charity for all war widows and their families. It was very humbling to present the awards.
Q: What were the preparations and challenges for you to play Neerja’s role?
A: I underwent the proper training for an airhostess, spoke with her friends and colleagues, heard her recordings of announcements and interacted with her family.
For me, the most difficult part of doing her role was not actually playing her in the plane but bringing forth her character as a daughter and sister. Her relationships were so significant because of what Neerja was. I recall Rama aunty telling me that everyone was telling her that she should be proud of her daughter. Rama aunty told me that she was proud, but no one understood that she was also grieving for her child!
Q: What if you are in Neerja’s shoes one day?
A: I don’t know! I hope I will be able to do the right thing.
Q: You also get involved in social issues.
A: Yes, but I am not someone who runs a foundation or something. I just believe that if you can make a difference to even one person, it is good. I have spoken about women’s empowerment, all kinds of sexuality and other issues, honestly. If my speaking out can help one woman be brave or one man change his attitude to women, I will be content. Neerja’s sacrifice has made me realize that whatever little I am doing is okay.
Q: What was your family’s reaction to the film?
A: Mom and Dad, like all moms and dads, love whatever I do! My ridiculously critical-of-me sister Rhea, however, wept upon watching the film. So if not me, it was probably Neerja who was responsible for that!