"Each scene is like an ad film for me": Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, director, Nil Battey Sannata

By Ashwini Gangal, afaqs!, Mumbai | May 02, 2016
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Director, Nil Battey Sannata

"Bollywood journalists don't differentiate between an 'art director' and an 'ad film director'. By way of clarification, I just say - 'I'm from the 'creative side'," laughs 36-year-old Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, director of the recently released feature film Nil Battey Sannata, a touching story of a maid who educates her daughter against all odds.

Ashwiny studied commercial art from Sophia Polytechnic, before entering the ad world. She rose to the position of executive creative director at Leo Burnett (where she spent over a decade), before joining film production company Opticus Inc. in 2013.

Though she plans to continue directing movies (Manmarziyan is the title of her next), Ashwiny is keen to direct ad films as well.

Nil Battey Sannata promo material

Ashwiny is married to feature film director Nitesh Tiwari (former chief creative officer, Leo Burnett), who has written Nil Battey Sannata.

Edited Excerpts


Social reality is inspiring the advertising professional and movie maker, alike. Both, brands and movies, are trying hard to own a purpose. To what do you attribute this?

There's something about the mood of the country today - it's very different right now. This mood belongs to the younger generation. By that I don't mean the 14-15 year old; I mean the 30-somethings.

They're aware of what is happening. They're the bridge between the older and newer generations. They're the ones who feel they should be doing something for society. They have a voice and aren't afraid to say what they feel. That's why we have so many entrepreneurs coming up today. These are the kind of audiences I believe in.

What lessons from your advertising career do you find yourself drawing on as a film director? And what mental processes do you need to consciously 'switch off' when on set?

My advertising background helps me get the human insights right. Advertising gave me a clear understanding of consumer insights. Now, in my films, it's almost like I have two hours to talk about one insight.

Advertising gave me the ability to have a very objective point of view. When we write an ad, we have a clear objective in mind. Now when I am shooting a scene, I know exactly what the objective or desired outcome of that scene is. In that sense, each scene is like an ad film for me.

I used to love researching my target consumers. The brands I worked on (including several FMCG brands from P&G) were all research oriented. That helps me a lot when I am directing.

Storytelling-wise, the one thing I 'switched off' was - advertising gives you very little time to focus on emotions; in 40 seconds you have to tell a whole story. But in a feature film you can deep dive into the emotions. It's important not to get carried away, though.

I like to keep things real. I've always stuck to ads that are based on superbly real insights. That's why I can never do a science fiction or action movie or anything 'unrealistic'. Even when I was in advertising I could never work on cola or car brands!

In hindsight, which brands influenced you the most? Which campaigns helped you become the film director you are today?

The six years that I worked on Sony (Entertainment Television) changed the way I looked at consumers. It was a GEC category - that's the general public. We did deep research for this brand. I launched more than 70 shows. My time working on Sony deeply influenced my consumer understanding. The middle class home has always been my focus area.

In fact, it was after I did the girl child film ('Mubarak Ho, Ladki Hui Hai') for Kaun Banega Crorepati that I got the 'brainwave' of making a feature film. If a 60-seconder could have such an impact, I wondered what a two-hour-long movie could do. The whole experience of working on the KBC campaign led to a paradigm shift in my brain.

Abhinay Deo once told us that when ad film makers direct feature films, they tend to be extremely detail oriented. What's the sensibility at play for an art director-turned-feature film director?

The best part is - I have not been an ad film director so I have no baggage whatsoever. Yes, I have directed a few ads (for example, Sony LIV Diwali ad film 'Choti Khushi'), but at the end of the day, I am a CD!

If I start doing art direction while directing a movie, I'll end up making an ad film in each frame.

In agencies, we shoot 40 seconds (worth of screen time) in two days. But for films, I shoot four to five minutes (worth of screen time) per day.

Do you miss art direction? Do you see yourself going back to the agency system?

No, what I miss is interacting with clients and solving their brand problems. I still consult with a few former clients.

I sometimes feel like going back to advertising... purely for the fun, the teamwork and the agency culture. Burnett was a fun place. We used to have a ball. Film making is an isolated job.

The one person who is really happy for me and who has really pushed me to achieve more is Pops (KV Sridhar, former chief creative officer, India subcontinent, Leo Burnett and present day chief creative officer, SapientNitro India). He said, 'Go do what you really feel like doing. Come back whenever you want to. Burnett is always there for you.'

Even today, Saurabh (Varma, chief executive officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett) says, 'Burnett is there for you... come back if you like.'

It would be nice to do an ad film for my own agency.

If I ever need to, I can always go back to the place I still belong to, head held high.

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