After photographing gorgeous females for a decade, almost always in swimsuits, lifestyle photographer Atul Kabekar takes his love for women to the big screen as producer of Neerja
I am good for women, and with them," says Atul Kasbekar when we meet him a day before his debut as producer, Neerja, hits the screen. It's little surprise that the fashion photographer known best for an annual swimsuit calendar he shoots, has chosen a woman-centric movie to launch his career behind the camera. Neerja, starring Sonam Kapoor, is a biographical account of Neerja Bhanot, a Pan Am stewardess who lost her life while saving passengers from terrorists during a hijack in September 1986.
Shanti Shiwara and Atul Kasbekar. Pic/Shadab Khan
"My partner, Shanti Sivaram sourced the script from Saiwyn Quadras, who wrote Mary Kom. He showed us seven pages and we were hooked," says Kasbekar, who has produced the film under Under Bling Unplugged. "I seemed to be one the few people who had heard of her [Bhanot]. I am a general knowledge junkie; I read a lot. I was in the US at the time, and I remember the ruckus that her death created."
And there were more connections.
A still from the movie
After they took on the project, his brother-in-law told him that Bhanot went to Bombay Scottish School with him. An assistant director on the set once shared that his grandmother was a survivor of that 1986 hijack. "And then my friend, Mustafa Eisa’s wife, Rukhsana, told me should was Neerja’s colleague and flew with her. It was just too much to ignore," he says. But Kasbekar’s first call to Bhanot’s family didn’t go well. "They asked if I had ever made a movie. I said no. They said, ‘People have been asking us for 20 years. Why would we agree to do it with you?’" he remembers. Kasbekar played it from the heart. He requested a meeting because he wished to make a film that would be honest to Neerja, he told them. "I said nothing will spoil her memory. So we hired a researcher."
The researcher took six months to meet and interview all the people Bhanot had grown up around, her family, colleagues she flew with and survivors of the hijack. "It’s a story that needed to be told," he says. The conviction made the hurdles that are typical of a production of this scale disappear, he claims. "Everyone we asked for permissions, like at airports or airlines, we got it without paying anything. They heard the story and wanted it made." That Kasbekar has been an onlooker in Bollywood helps; whether as ‘celebrity’ photographer or celebrity manager (he owns celeb management firm, Bling). Making it in Bollywood is about "people management", he says. "It’s about working your tail off. Nothing comes easy. For example, we had to recreate a 747 from scratch, because no plane today looks like the older ones. We made our own plane!"
Though he hopes the movie will set him up as producer of note, Kasbekar knows he will be a photographer first. And that's when his spiritual side unfurls. "I was at an ashram where they were playing music, and it just kept playing, as it took us into a trance. It was like the Gods were playing. And the guru didn’t stop it, because he said that was also meditation of a kind. That’s how I feel when I pick up the camera. It’s me and the face in front of me. I love faces, and I will keep doing it
[photography] till it makes me feel this way."