afaqs!

"The scariest trend is that there's a commodification of work": Vinil Mathew, ad filmmaker

By Shweta Mulki, afaqs!, Mumbai | July 31, 2018
A chat with one of adland's most prolific directors - (most recent work: Mondelez's latest change-in-positioning film) - about his craft.
Vinil Mathew

Vinil Mathew

Ad filmmaker

"Direction is the only art form where you are dependent on everyone else to attain your vision," says ad filmmaker Vinil Mathew. Having helmed close to 300 ad films to date, he would know.

Mathew (41) has a showreel panning across segments and brands like Nestle, Mondelez, HUL, Titan, Airtel, Vodafone, TOI, and Vivo to name just a few. Like the new Cadbury TVC, his films are known to have an endearing quality with pitch-perfect emotions and subtle humour all underlined by storytelling that is unassuming.

"It's about a way that resonates with peoples' lives," he says of his process. "I'm not much of a reference guy and don't make clients look at a 100 other films in discussions. I try to borrow from reality as much as I can. Bringing that in depends on your control of the craft," he adds. The Cadbury film, in fact, was inspired by his sons. Mathew also feels that as a Malayalee boy raised in Delhi, his 'pan-Indian sensibilities' help him understand nuances across Indian sub-cultures.

While Mathew loves scouting for fresh talent, star endorsers are also known to bring their A-game when working with him. His tryst with filmmaker Karan Johar on a Nescafe campaign led to the latter (and Anurag Kashyap) producing his first film in 2014- the charming 'Hasee Toh Phasee'; a critically and commercially acclaimed film.

"Well, everyone asks me about my next 'film' but don't know that I've been working on ad films all along. The ecosystems are so different - an ad filmmaker is not seen as 'filmmaker'," he says. "But in feature films, you make one and you get that title," he notes.

When speaking of the digital explosion-led clutter, he says, "Breaking through all that noise can be quite a challenge. It's just not your ad you're dealing with - there are things shot on the phone, YouTube videos, viral stuff - amidst which you're trying to sell a product in a believable manner." He further adds, "The scariest trend is that there's a commodification of work."

We chat about that and more.

Edited Excerpts


The backstory - You were planning to become an economist?

When studying in college in Delhi, I was quite inspired when Mani Ratnam spoke of the need for more thinking people in cinema. I came to intern with Bharat Bala productions in Mumbai - in an attempt to meet cinematographer Santosh Sivan. Post that, since I'd studied economics, I appeared for the Delhi School of Economics entrance test and also for FTII - I got into the latter. I wanted to be a DOP, but that mandated Physics/ Chemistry as subjects. I thought of editing too but that needs patience (I was the youngest there). I didn't want to direct because 20 years ago, directors were perceived as strugglers who drunk themselves into oblivion; but 'technicians could always get work.' Only after getting into the direction course I realised how much there was to learn and I did everything to catch up.

Your professional journey began in 2000 in Mumbai...

There was an opening at Mahesh Mathai's Highlight Films - where I ended up assisting Prasoon Pandey for a good two and a half years. Eventually, I joined Nomad Films and the Bombay struggle began. Jobs were not so frequent and paid less. The first film I made on my own was for a mosquito coil brand called Knight Queen - we got an animation guy to work on our office computer. There was a long stint with Mudra's Sukumar Menon - we did some 25 films for Reliance. There was also the SBI pickpocket ad and many 'visual ads', as that's what young guys did then; I had to get that out of my system. After that was the Footcandles stint.

afaqs once did a story on how beyond big-name filmmakers there were new age ad guys cropping up with specialisations - humour, performance, visual. Does slotting still exist?

Well, the human mind likes to slot. We've all cried hoarse about it. In fact, people never gave me performance films earlier, but now, my 'humour' and 'human emotions' work stand out I suppose. So when I do non-human story films, they aren't always associated with me - like the Fosters campaign, Titan's Aamir Khan light-stealing, Vivo cheerleader or Bournville cocoa bean.

Were the first films that brought you attention 'performance' ones?

At Footcandles, we made these IBM-type films for Reliance that got noticed by the fraternity, including Nestlé's Chandru (Chandrasekar Radhakrishnan) who was with Airtel then. That led to the Vidya-Maddy campaign. I also did Hutch and Vodafone around the same time - I was like this telecom specialist. It was a fast-moving space with schemes one after the other.

While agencies could have brand conflicts to deal with, directors can seamlessly flit across competitors...

It doesn't matter as we are at a latter-end of the strategy. One does need to understand positioning, but we are more kicked by the actual creative idea. As professionals, we know a certain kind of secrecy needs to be maintained and clients have repeatedly worked with us. It's about being true to each brand's unique language and tonality. For instance, Vodafone has a certain elegance and minimalism, Airtel has more romance - is more Indian, Idea was a little earthy etc. Within a brand too, there are different pitches - in Cadbury, there's the mother brand, there's Celebrations, Silk, in-home consumption and so on.

In Nestle too you've worked across the board...

Yes, there was a rapport with Chandru. With Nescafe, there was the Karan Johar and Deepika Padukone series, then the stammering comic, the cartoonist, and there was Maggi too.

What's your general wishlist for good agency/ client partnerships?

Be it a CEO, a marketing head or a brand manager, we need them to have that intent to do effective and impactful work.

But don't they all aspire to do that?

Post digital, in the last five years, the scariest trend is that there's a commodification of work. Many want 'cheap and fast work'. Campaigns don't run that long anymore and people are not investing in brand tonality - it's all strategic, knee-jerk and reactive. Research guides decisions but it can't be the only way. Ads have become a cost centre and not seen as an investment. Sub-par, low creative is rampant. You want to break through the noise but you end up adding to it.

So how do you stay true to your work and vision?

We have consciously stepped back from the mayhem and partnered with clients who want to build brands with good work. It's not all about 'turnaround time'. I like working with entrepreneurs, especially because of their emotional attachment to the brand. Like Sunil Mittal may have bounced some of my films, but those instincts, gut feel and passion spill over to our work. Flipkart's Phone Pe was exciting -we gave a good amount of time to it, but the client had such passion. Having said that, brands like Nestle, HUL (Surf Excel), and Mondelez also have that same intent.

The audience - then and now - how have responses changed?

Core extractive value hasn't changed - portrayal has. Emotions from 20 years ago would perhaps be seen as loud and OTT and aesthetics have changed, but people still like drama, humour and sentimental stuff. The 'rasas' are the same - treatment changes every 2-3 months now!

The 30-seconder and the 2.5-hour movie - how has advertising prepared you for the latter?

Fundamentally, a director's job is man-management, 90 per cent of the time. Till the end of the film, it's a constant battle - be it Murphy or navigating through people's own interpretations - all while holding on to your core idea. Films or ads, over the years, ground-work teaches you the nuances - how much information to give, what to withhold, how much to brief actors, budgets, understanding people's abilities, tantrums (sometimes you've hard-sold an actor and they're unable to deliver on shoot day) - all this needs to be handled. It's about keeping the boat steady.

Casting is an integral part of the process, isn't it?

Yes, we scout extensively across six cities - 90 per cent of the time we've worked with new faces. In TOI's Aman Ki Asha, we flew in 15 villagers (from 6 to 78 years) from a Srinagar hamlet. They were flying for the first time, that too from the cold of Kashmir to the heat of Rajasthan and didn't even want to be paid as they were awed by the experience. In Cadbury's 'Baraat', we shot in Lucknow with completely different faces, straying away from the brand's usual template.

For most filmmakers, ads are bread and butter and feature films, a passion...

True, but we don't do multiple ad jobs. I get quite involved; clients are sometimes disappointed if I don't suggest changes to the storyboard. There's a physical and emotional commitment to the process. During the MP Tourism ad, for example, my wife (pregnant with our first child) was editing that one - and just as it was done, she went into labour, with the file stuck in the machine. The client understood, but I still took the laptop to her that night to transfer the whole thing!

How is it being a creative entrepreneur - the daily negotiations?

I hate signing documents, looking at accounts, clearing godowns, fixing some AC - all of that. One obviously wants mind-space exclusively for creative. I resisted for very long but figured that I could do my best work if I'm on my own.

Here are some more Vinil Mathew ads:

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