When Nitesh Tiwari joined Ulka as a copywriter in the mid-90s, he was touted as a 'specialist Hindi writer', not the coolest kind of adman at the time.
Now, the former chief creative officer of Leo Burnett India is a day away from the release of a Hindi feature film that he has written (along with Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain and Nikhil Mehrotra) and directed - Dangal. The movie is based on the lives of wrestlers Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari. Aamir Khan plays their father. How cool is that?
Look in the archives for ads he has directed and one finds Sony's KBC campaign right on top - it includes the Kohima, Hindu-Muslim and Loud Speaker films that were part of the channel's 2014 campaign titled 'Yahan paise hi nahi, dil bhi jeetay jatey hai'.
Other movie titles Tiwari has to his credit include Chillar Party (written, directed), Bhoothnath Returns (written, directed), Kill Dil (written) and Nil Battey Sannata (written).
From copywriting to feature film writing - How has the transition been?
It's unnerving... till you start seeing the results.
In advertising, you know for sure that there's a brief waiting for you. In films, you don't know what's going to happen next; you don't know whether there's an actor or production house waiting for you. If you're on your own, you don't know whether there's an ad agency willing to give you an ad film (to direct) or not.
So the first few months can be quite unnerving.
From 30-second ads to three-hour-long films - Is it liberating to no longer be bound by the shackles of a brief? Or do you need to rein the creative juices in at times?
You're absolutely right - it's a mixture of the two feelings. It is liberating and intimidating.
Liberating because it's like getting an 'open brief' with the luxury of not worrying about fitting things into a fixed time frame.
It can get scary because if you don't do it with discipline, it can become counter-productive.
In advertising, you have an escape route for not doing good work - 'We only got 30 seconds...', 'Client didn't buy it...', 'Acche director ke saath karne ko nahi mila...', 'Achhi film toh research mein bomb ho gayi...', but with movies, you have all the freedom in the world - there's no escape route.
Also - advertising gives you many chances. If you make an ad that doesn't work, you can just make another ad. But there's no second chance in feature films. If you make a feature film that doesn't work.... it doesn't work! That's mighty scary.
How has your advertising career influenced your sensibilities as a feature film writer?
Advertising has brought discipline to my film writing. The one thing I find lacking in Bollywood is the first thing we're taught in advertising - you're not writing for yourself; you're writing for a TG. When you write knowing it's for someone else, you keep their sensibilities in mind.
Advertising has also taught me to optimise my writing. You don't need to be extravagant in your writing to make a point. You can be a miser and still make your point.
Having dealt with consumers and consumer insights, I'm very aware of what people will relate to. This keeps me from writing superficially.
Advertising has taught me the importance of team work. That comes in handy while working on a feature film.
While writing an ad, you have to be very precise; you have to write down the exact objective of each scene in the ad film. When you do this for a feature film, it becomes a very lengthy process. But I do it. It improves my writing. When you evaluate a screenplay with this lens, you end up either deleting or adding something. This discipline, only an adman can have.
That's a long list of positive influences advertising has had on your movie career. Sure there must be an 'adman switch' you need to consciously turn off at times? Tell us about the 'advertising baggage' you've had to shed...
When you come to the world of movies from advertising, there is one thing you need to unlearn...
People are extremely forgiving of bad ads. They're not seeking an appointment from you to watch your ads. Your ad comes in-between. They do not have any expectations from your ad. They don't pay to consume your ad. So you can get away with a very bad 40-seconder.
But people are extremely responsive to films. They're seeking an appointment from you to watch it, and they're spending money and time on it. So they're going to be extremely harsh.
It's easy to get away with a bad ad. It's not easy to get away with a bad feature film.
When you write and direct the same movie, how do you balance the two roles? Which hat tends to be bigger?
For ads, I feel, at no point should the director take the front seat. It's the creative guy who should take the front seat. The director is just telling the story... the director is translating the vision of the CD onto the screen.
I apply this rule to movies as well - the director must do justice to the writer.
What do you miss most about working at an ad agency?
I miss my team. In advertising, your team is with you through the year. In feature films, your team moves on after the film is over.