F Shroff's abiding and burgeoning love for writing pushed him, at 36 years of age, to chuck his promising career in advertising and step into a mainstream writing career. Shroff gave up full-time advertising in 1997. Being a writer, he says, is not always fun. Today, at 45, he lives in Mumbai and juggles two businesses - writing and advertising. While writing is like a second skin, advertising helps him pay his bills.
Shroff started his career in 1986 with Ulka, went on to O&M, McCann-Erickson (known in those days as TS McCann-Erickson), Trikaya Grey, and MAA Bozell. Advertising, which he says comes to him naturally, is much easier than writing. Being aware that out of every 47,000 people in the United States who write with the intention of getting their work published, only 1 per cent manage to get their work published (the number is even lower in India), Shroff decided to be his own master, rather than a slave to clients. So, while he enjoys the advertising process - creative, account planning, strategy - he makes sure he's given absolute freedom by his clients.
Shroff took some time out from his busy day to talk to agencyfaqs! about his love for writing and advertising, his future novel on advertising, and creative standards in advertising.
What inspired you to start writing? When did you step away from advertising?
How easy was it really for you to move away from advertising to a full time career in writing? When did you know you wanted to write professionally?
First, let me clarify that I do not write full time. I still do commercial projects to support my literary work. After I decided to quit holding a mainstream job (which was some time at the end of 1997), I ran a one man creative consultancy called Certain Initiative. It was a well thought out concept, which entailed disbelieving the client brief and going in with my own recommendations. I was handling creative, servicing and production in most cases, with an account planning focus.
As my clients grew, they started pushing me to start my own full service agency. I knew I couldn't do that. That was when I asked myself: What did I really want to do? I realised what I wanted to do was to write and to make a difference with the writing. The latter bit was equally important, for there were too many books in the stores - too much writing and too little literature. Having decided to take the plunge, I switched my advertising practice from client based to project based, which meant that I would now choose what I wanted to work on, and in between that - my pecuniary chores, as I called them - I would work on my fiction.
In the initial years, it was not easy to switch between advertising work and literary writing: They were varying and conflicting head spaces. Writing is completely absorbing; when you are in the thick of it, you can't pull out, you just want to keep going till you see the light, and, in the middle of that, if a client calls, and the project is attractive - that's when the trouble starts; you groan and get to work. Now it's a lot easier. I spend more time writing and I do commercial projects that are either advisory in nature or which I find enjoyable and meaningful.
You seem to have created a profile of the average Mumbaikar in Breathless in Bombay. What does the novel talk about?
A character based, issue based fiction, Breathless in Bombay is a collection of 14 stories. The work takes a deep interior look at characters spanning various sections of society - from migrant workers such as dhobis, victoriawalas, maalishwalas and taxiwalas to middle class employees, senior citizens and jet-setting socialites. It is about their dreams, their frustrations, their realisations and their redemption.
Specifically, the book is about individual journeys and the issues that govern their lives. The average Mumbaikar is confronted with several issues: civic apathy, encroachment, depletion of green zones, pollution, poverty, corruption, and class envy. But if you are in that space where your life or your work is directly affected, then that issue becomes that much more magnified. In capturing individual lives and their circumstances, I have tried to broaden our understanding of each other. In untangling the civic rhythms of the city, I have attempted to unearth the real essence of Bombay - what is it that inspires writers like me and 20 million others to stay and toil and dream? What is the real strength and beauty of Bombay? I thought the answers could come, perhaps more convincingly, from one who had lived here.
So, what new can readers expect from this collection of short stories?
In terms of content, my readers can expect a better understanding of lives around us, lives we know little about. Having spent time with my characters, I would hope that the collection has the depth I intended for it. In terms of feel, I have attempted to create a novel-like fullness in each story. This meant reworking it many times over, on all counts of character building, plot, pacing, humour, irony and premise.
Breathless in Bombay is peopled with flavourful characters - dhobis threatened by washing machines, maalishwalas threatened with extinction, a schizophrenic painter intent on protecting his hedonistic lifestyle, an old Parsi doctor who believes that HIV/AIDS would never have entered India had the British not left, a victoriawala committed to saving his horse, and equally, a prostitute's child from a life of damnation.
So far, you have published fiction with 25 literary journals, mostly in the US, some in the UK. Tell us about these.
A play of mine, Cold Room of the Heart, has been archived by Stanford University and a poem of mine on the Bombay riots will appear shortly in an award winning journal. Additionally, I have written a novella for the early teens (My Kingdom for a Horse), a near completion second collection of stories (Third Eye Rising), and am at work on a novel.
Having been associated with advertising for so long, do you wish to explore advertising in any of your future writings?
You will find my advertising experience reflected in two stories in Breathless in Bombay. The first is Haraami, the other is Love in the Time of AIDS, where I have drawn on my song writing experience. The next collection will have a story based specifically on an advertising man.
So, what comes easier and what is more fun - writing or advertising?
You just can't compare the two. Compared to writing, advertising is like a paid holiday. But let me clarify, I am referring to the creative process. If you take into account the baggage advertising comes with - long unresolved meetings, changing client briefs, unreasonable deadlines - then writing is a whole lot more fun. In writing, you set the rules, you push the envelope, and you have only yourself to blame when the rejection letters start pouring in. How long can you keep it going without knowing the outcome? That is the challenge every new writer faces.
How did the advertising industry react to your becoming a writer?
I did not meet too many advertising people when I was writing. I kind of went underground. The few I met seemed wistful.
From when you started your career with Ulka, till now, what is that one measure of difference that you have made? How has advertising changed over the years?
I think my contributions to advertising have been two. One, I have always excavated the idea from the brand, which was something the client could sense and why most of my work sold. Two: As a creative head, I took pride in nurturing my juniors; I thought nothing of promoting their work over mine.
At one level, in terms of the creative product, advertising has become more generic, more humorous, more ethnic, more earthy and more unanimous in its appeal. In terms of business objectives, it has become more short term, and because of this, sometimes more cautious. I suspect the greatest ideas - and these could be below the line or simple business solutions - are often not the most visible, or there are no budgets to make them visible. I think advertising is fast moving to the other side of the desk, where communication actually helps to redefine the client's business. The whole concept of creativity is undergoing a sea change: It's all about responsible partnering, being an integral part of the business process. Given this new equation, it is important, no, critical, that ideas command the premium and respect they deserve.
So, do you like what you see? Who, according to you, is a mind full of ideas out there?
I would like to see it use more of the talent it is capable of, and the fault herein - this underutilisation - lies with the client, who presupposes a fundamental knowledge of creative. Undoubtedly, the ones who have made a difference to the industry and can continue to do so are Piyush Pandey, Prasoon Joshi, Agnello Dias, Sonal Dabral, Preeti Vyas Giannetti and Josy Paul. I am sure there are many others, of whose presence and contributions I am not aware. But this I will say: It's very pleasing to see creative people at the helm of agencies. From here onwards, it can only get better.