Drama Queen To Queen Of Drama
Nine years and 12 films later, Sonam Kapoor is finally making news for her acting skills as much as for her sartorial taste
SSALMAN 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 reallife 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.”
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