From serving the Indian Army to founding India’s first low-cost airline Air Deccan, Captain GR Gopinath’s life has been an inspiration for many. Now, that story comes alive on screen in Sudha Kongara‘s Soorarai Pottru, starring Suriya, Aparna Balamurali and others.
Excerpts from an interview with Captain Gopinath (Retd) and Academy Award-winning co-producer Guneet Monga on her foray into Tamil cinema after producing classics such as Gangs of Wasseypur and Masaan.
How does it feel to see a movie being made based on your life?
Generally, it’s a good feeling, I am yet to see the movie. I presume the movie has captured the essence of the book [Simply Fly] and I am confident that Guneet, who has distinguished herself in the film industry through her impeccable production track record has done a great job in ensuring the spirit of the book, which is “He who believes, conquers”, is captured.
What was your first thought when they said Suriya would be playing you?
I was not aware of Suriya’s stardom during the initial phase of the project. When the official announcement was made, I was flooded with emails and messages, and I was made aware of his popularity in the Tamil film industry and his credibility, not only as an artiste, but also as a wonderful human being. These factors gave me the confidence that the person portraying my life would be true to the story even if it is dramatised to a certain level.
Guneet, your production house has made notable movies such as Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2, The Lunchbox and Masaan. Your film Period. End Of Sentence won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary in 2018. As a producer, how do you green-light scripts?
I feel very spiritual about this whole process. I believe the stories choose us and not the other way around. My journey in the making of Soorarai Pottru has been for over two-and-a-half years. It’s a rare story that bridges the gap between the haves and have-nots, and you don’t come across something like what Captain Gopinath has created, and which can be put across through cinema, every day. The story does not suffer any language barrier. Everyone from Kashmir to Kanyakumari knows about Air Deccan. I also have a personal inclination towards this story, because my mother’s first flight was on Air Deccan. The sheer possibility of securing an affordable air ticket was something special.
Choosing a script is always intuitional, it’s like the feeling you have after reading a well-written book. Right from the start, when Sudha Kongara brought this story across to me and our meeting with Captain Gopinath, followed by onboarding Suriya as the main lead and producer, my instincts were right that this story can have a wide footprint.
Captain, when Sudha and Guneet first approached you, were you fine with their idea of the script? How relevant was the script compared to the book?
Guneet: When I met Captain Gopinath, the filmmaking rights were with somebody else and there was little progress on it. He was open to discussion with Sudha and me. As Gopinath Sir mentioned, we have retained the essence of the story, but it is inspired by real-life incidents and yet fictionalised, and we are excited for the world to see it.
Gopinath: I was reluctant to give the rights, because there was a feeling within me that the movie might be too dramatised, which could dilute the story and spirit of the book. The late Girish Karnad, writer, theatre artiste, director and actor, was a friend of mine. On two occasions, he spoke to my wife, asking for the film rights to the book, as he felt the book had great cinematic value with a great story about the Army and aviation. It was also a story about perseverance. He was even ready to direct the feature if the rights were given. After a while, two young filmmakers approached me and they were very passionate to make the film, even with a limited budget. I mentioned that the movie had to be made within two years, or the rights would be withdrawn.
The project got stalled. Girish again suggested that the rights need to be given to a capable team, and that’s when Guneet approached me. I had fortunately seen The Lunchbox, and it sparked an intuition that her team would be the right choice.
Guneet: Soorarai Pottru is a step-up from my previous ventures in terms of budget and scale. It’s a story that starts in a village and goes to the skies! I am proud to have worked with Sudha in telling this story. She has handled the script amazingly well.
The cast includes a wide range of well-established actors such as Urvashi, Paresh Rawal, Mohan Babu and Aparna Balamurali. How detailed was the casting process?
Aparna was Sudha’s choice and she lit up the screen with her fabulous performance. Very little is said about Suriya as a producer — it was amazing to work with him and his team from 2D Entertainment. Most of us in the team thought Paresh Rawal would be the right choice for the role of a corporate businessman, since the plot also revolves around corporate politics. I approached Paresh and he was very willing to act. Soorarai Pottru is his first Tamil venture.
How did this foray into the South happen? Were you approached with other scripts before Soorarai Pottru?
Vetri Maaran found me. I was asked to work as an executive producer for Kaaka Muttai and Visaranai. I worked on the film festival strategy for both these movies and was able to take Kaaka Muttai to the Toronto International film festival and Visaranai to the Venice film festival. Vetri and I further worked for the promotion campaign of Visaranai at the Oscars, which was a huge learning experience for us. That’s when I connected with Sudha Kongara and other directors such as Karthik Subbaraj. Sudha and I are like-minded; we bonded over discussions regarding content and principles, and then she put across the story of Soorarai Pottru, which she was fascinated about.
I am just glad that we were able to associate with the right people such as Sudha and Suriya and make this happen. Soorarai Pottru is my first big-budget film and we could not have expected better partners than Amazon Prime Video, since it also increases the viewers’ footprint across India.
In Simply Fly – A Deccan Odyssey, you refer to your first interaction with Mr Vijay Mallya…
I began Air Deccan before Mallya ventured into the airline business. During our first meeting, we discussed our business models and ideologies. Though our business interests were similar, our vision was completely different. For me, it was the challenge of achieving the impossible. The goal of working towards an extraordinary vision of making air travel more affordable was the main priority.
What are your favorite biopics and biographies?
Guneet: I loved Ford vs Ferrari, directed by James Mangold, and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, starring Farhan Akhtar.
Gopinath: Business biographies that inspired me are Sam Walton’s Made in America, and the biography of Kōnosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic. I also enjoy reading about leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte.