Interview with Neerja producer Atul Kasbekar

It is no small feat for a first-time producer to see such commercial and critical success. Atul Kasbekar’s first film venture, Neerja is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year. Magic of Bollywood spoke to Atul about spirituality, what it means to be a platform, the changing face of mainstream cinema, and his journey from fashion photography to film production, what it means to be a platform.


Neerja is no doubt one of the best films of this year. You must be very proud?

Yeah we worked really hard, and I feel that all the elements that needed to come together to make this film possible, did. I mean, if I’m doing a photographic campaign there’s a lot of elements you need to control but over a short length of time, within a month at the maximum, it’s over. Whereas making a movie is anywhere from a two, to two and a half year process. There are so many different elements along the way that you need to have all the boxes ticked in your favour. And there are some boxes that you wouldn’t even think of, it’s like some divine power has to come and tick them for you. I think everything that could have gone right for Neerja, did, so I’m very grateful.


Tell me about your journey from fashion photographer to celebrity manager to film producer? How did that happen?

For me, it’s all about enjoying what you do. I was initially studying to be a chemical engineer and I quit in my second year because I realised that I didn’t enjoy it, which basically meant I would be the world’s worst chemical engineer. Instead, I found I could take pictures for 18 hours a day with no expectations of anyone paying me. I would do it as a hobby and I realised I could this for a living because it didn’t feel like work, and getting paid for it was a bonus. So I studied at the Brookes Institute of Photography in the US and all the people I assisted after that had agents, so I came back to India to look for an agent and realised that here there was no such thing. It was a big need here, to represent creative people, and allow them to do what they do best, be it acting, writing, directing etc. And let someone else talk shop for them. So I started Matrix with two other partners and later left from there and went onto Bling.


And how did that lead to Neerja?

The thing about celebrity representation is you will always be at the mercy of the fortune of the stars you represent. If their fortune falls, so does yours. So you’re always on a knife edge in that sense. So we always had it in our heads that we should be in a space where we own our own properties and we don’t have to answer to anyone on those fronts.  There were a couple of scripts we were toying with and then we came across a seven-pager which was written by Saiwyn Quadras, who wrote Mary Kom, which hadn’t released at that time. He was a friend of one of my partners Shanti (Sivram) and she asked if I knew the story of this girl, Neerja Bhanot and I was one of the few people who did. I almost feel like I have some sort of cosmic connection with Neerja Bhanot although I’ve never actually met her. It’s remarkable how many people I know who were close to her, including the other head purser who actually traded flights with Neerja on the day.  Aside from that, one of the assistant directors told me, well into the filming, that their mother was actually on the flight! So we’ve had a good 15-20 such incidents.

So when I read that seven-pager, I said if we can get the rights of the film from the family, then we’ll go ahead and do it. So the family met us with the intention of politely saying no, which they had done 25-30 times previously to the various people who had approached them from 1986 till today. So I don’t know what happened at that meeting and why they gave us the green light, I guess they thought we were sincere and said ok go ahead. I think they had a preconceived notion about Bollywood and we had to assure them that this wasn’t a ‘terrorist in a bar watching item numbers’ type film we were setting out to make. We wanted to make a serious film and document those historic incidents. And more than that it bothered me that someone who was the youngest, and first female to receive India’s highest bravery award, had been forgotten. It’s like she never existed. I think we have a serious problem in India where we tend to forget our heroes. This is something they do so well in the West, they really celebrate their heroes and keep their memory alive. It’s really important for future generations to respect things that have happened in history. But it bothered me that this girl had done something extraordinary and it was essentially forgotten, in spite of the fact that this is actually documented as the worst hijacking in airline history.


In our nation, there must be so many powerfully moving stories like Neerja’s which just aren’t talked about enough. In your view why don’t we see more of these translate to the big screen?

I think you will see a lot more of them now. It started a few years ago with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, and more recently Airlift and so on. What happens with our industry is everyone is a pundit after the fact. People tend to follow what they think is the trend, and if you start to follow a trend after a successful film has emerged, the chances are you will catch it at the fag-end of that trend.

Which then brings you to an important point about the state of flux in the industry of what exactly is ‘mainstream’? So I think the formula on that is also changing a great deal. So while you will have a Baaghi do well you also have an Airlift do really well. But if I tell a studio: ‘Let’s make a movie about a girl that nobody remembers who died at the end of a tragic story, there’s no real male hero per se, there’s no songs to promote the movie with and no love angle and you know the ending. I mean no matter what happens you know the girl will die. And we need a reasonable sum of money to make it because we need to make a damn plane, a 1986 Boeing 747 which isn’t available today. So we can’t fake that because that becomes too obvious. And we needed 16 crores to make the film which was cost of production.’ I’m willing to bet that most people would have said you are insane. And having said that, it’s done the best return on investment this year. So I think the definition of what is a commercial film is rapidly changing


Can you tell us about your upcoming projects? There were rumours that you were in talks to work with Vidya Balan on a project? As well as writing a comedy with Ram Madhvani?

The Vidya Balan thing isn’t true at all. We do represent her, but she is booked up well into next year.  I mean it would be an honour if Vidya thinks that anything I bring to her is worth doing because her left toe alone has more talent than most people, she’s a phenomenal actor. So I would be blown away if she said yes. But it’s not true.

In terms of Ram, I’ve known him for 25 years and we’ve always got along like a house on fire. We have a lot of similar interests. And the working equation in Neerja was phenomenal because it was completely egoless and I completely protected his vision and let him make the film he wanted to make. So after Neerja, I gave him a bunch of ideas, none of which he liked. But there was one idea I had which I thought was worth exploring, so I wrote a two-pager with a plotline, which he loved. So that’s under development. It’s a comedy. So considering the first film we did together, this one couldn’t be more different. It’s the other end of the spectrum completely, considering it’s much more of a mad comedy. The idea and concept are mine, but no I’m not writing it, we’ve engaged a professional writer and I’m expecting the first draft later this month. We haven’t even discussed which actor, we are just working on the script.


Would you be open to directing or writing in the future, or are you happy sticking to producing?

No I’m quite happy as a producer. The thing is, I’m reasonably spiritual and there’s a spiritual guide I follow in South India who I sometimes visit. It’s very conversational and when I told him about Neerja, he told me I have a very special skill, which is that I’m a platform. So I asked what do you mean ‘platform’, and he said it’s a very special skill to be able to get disparate people onto a common platform and make them work together in a harmonious way. He said that is a very rare skill and I’ll be very good at it so I should do this. Whereas if I was to direct I will have to learn the craft and you can only do one film every 2 years and the movie could tank in which case nobody would want to talk to me. So here I could be in a creative space (which I truly enjoy) and then if you don’t have an ego about it and you’re fully prepared to accept that the coffee boy on a given day could have a phenomenal suggestion and a head of the studio might have a crap one. But you’re the one who can harmoniously put it together. So I never actually thought of it that way, but yeah I’m a platform.


Do you feel people in the industry now understand the need for celebrity representation, both in terms of actors and filmmakers?

Yeah almost everyone now, barring a few old school veterans, has representation and it’s understood that you will go home with certainly a lot more respect and money if you have adequate representation by professionals who are actually adding to your success. Because earlier it was thought of as ‘they are taking my money’ which I guess is logical if you think about it, but what was overlooked that we are actually providing a service and adding real value. It’s also easier to fight for someone and say ‘Do you know what a rockstar he is?’, rather than someone push for themselves by saying ‘Do you know what a rockstar I am?’, which just sounds silly.


Do you think representation will help writers who are severely underappreciated?

I think anyone in a creative profession should have representation, whether they are a director, writer, actor or otherwise. I mean even I never negotiate my own stuff; I always get someone else to do it on my behalf. I’m actually currently looking for someone to manage me photographically. And it’s in the agent’s own interest to push for the creative person’s success because their success is tied to their client’s success. It’s easier to have difficult conversations on someone’s behalf rather than have them yourself. So we just tell people never to discuss dates or money, that’s our job, there’s is just to be creative


What’s your view on the increasing issues with the CBFC? Does it worry you as a producer in terms of the films you can and can’t make? Do you feel restricted at all?

You know I was actually talking to a very senior minister the other day and I said when something is inevitable, you should take the lead and make sure it is addressed before it becomes a big issue. When it becomes an issue, it becomes an ego issue and then you can’t back down because your ego is at play. So whether it was FTII, or the CBFC, when the first murmurings of problem occurred, they should have backed off. Having said that, it’s the Central Board of Film Certification, not censorship. This is the movie I’m made, regardless of your opinion of the movie it is your job to certify it. If someone says ‘what do I need to change to get a U/A?’, then that’s understandable and they can suggest changes. You can then decide if you want to make those changes and take the lower certification, or keep your artistic integrity and so on.

Having said that, based on the projects we’re looking at, I don’t see any project that at worst will be a U/A. I mean that’s because the films I want to make are ones which I’m proud of, but also have a wide commercial reach rather than more specific genres of film which only appeal to specific sections of the audience.  But at a holistic level, I don’t think we should be censoring anything because it’s so silly, there’s almost everything available on the internet anyway, why would you try and censor things when people will find a way around it anyway?


What’s, the last film you saw that had a profound impact on you and really blew you away?

From this year, I thought Kapoor and Sons was refreshingly different. In terms of what really knocked my socks off, I think the writing you’re seeing on TV in the West is really blowing me away. Shows like House of Cards, Sherlock, Breaking Bad before that etc.


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