Fish, oysters, coral reefs, Nirma?

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 25, 2009
Nirma's advertising has finally done it: a lavish investment in ad execution. afaqs! explores the link between the old and the new, and how a whopping Rs 1.5 crore was spent on Nirma's latest 'underwater ballet' attempt

It isn't everyday that a brand like Nirma wakes up and decides to undergo a personality transplant. Again, it isn't everyday that a whopping Rs 1.5 crore is spent on that thought.

A new commercial by Nirma - created by the Aggi-Paddy venture TapRoot India - has underwater ballet as its theme, while the clamorous Nirma jingle has been modernised to an opera-like track to go with it. The ad is a celebration of what Nirma has represented for nearly three decades: washing clothes and maintaining their colour.

& #BANNER1 & #In this report, afaqs! explores the link between the old and the new, the filming tricks employed to craft the underwater sequences, and what the ad industry makes of this endeavour.

A walk down Nirma lane

The Nirma story dates back to1982 - a year that witnessed the birth of the first film for the brand, with the effervescent jingle, 'Washing Powder Nirma' (created by composer Vedpal). Vinod Sharma of Purnima Advertising was the creative director, while the film was directed by SS Oberoi. Purnima Advertising has been in charge of the creative and media duties since the beginning, with occasional projects given out to other agencies.

The second commercial, directed by Kailash Surendranath, featured the superstar of those days, Sangeeta Bijlani, along with models such as Shikha Swaroop and Anuradha Patel. The jingle, with its twang, has always been a part of Nirma's communication, and was rarely tweaked. Other constants in a Nirma film included the Nirma girl in a frock on the pack shot, and the swirl and twirl of saris by models in outdoor locations.

In 2005, Prasoon Pandey of Corcoise Films brought about a little change when he worked on a Nirma film that was different from its predecessors - this was the food throwing ad (Hema, Rekha, Jaya, Sushma). The idea, a brainchild of Pandey, lent names - and profiles - to Nirma housewives. This was followed by another ad in the series that showed the four housewives, with their beaus, up to mischief.

A few years ago, Nirma came full circle with an ad featuring model and actor Simone Singh: a commercial that brandished the exact song and dance idea as the very first ad. "We aired that ad longer than we should have," says Manan Soni, director, Purnima Advertising, "but we were in an interim stage of figuring out what to do."

Enter TapRoot India, which was awarded a project for Nirma three months ago. The brief was to essentially showcase Nirma in a new light, while retaining some of the constants that it has come to be known for.

This TapRoot grows underwater

The new film shows ballet dancers sashaying about underwater in an artistic manner, forming arches and random shapes with their colourful, flowing garments (costumes by designer Aparna Chandra). The crescendo builds up to a point where the Nirma banner makes its appearance in the water, while an opera version of the Nirma jingle starts playing. The film ends with the Nirma girl and the twirl in her frock as the pack shot settles with a thud on the 'ocean bed'.

According to Santosh Padhi, co-founder and chief creative officer, TapRoot India, the whole attempt is to own the premise of 'water' in this category. "It's such a simple thing: Nirma has always conjured up the image of washing clothes in a bucketful of water. So, an underwater ballet was our answer to owning the 'water' premise. We wanted to take this fresh approach to the brand as a celebration of its lineage."

The brand wished to clearly move past the formula advertising trap that it had fallen prey to over the years. As Nirma's proposition is well established, this ad is to remind people about Nirma in a feel-good, poetic way, says Paddy, while keeping away from a set storyline.

Some mnemonics associated strongly with Nirma - such as the jingle and the girl with the frock - were retained (although the jingle was modernised by composer R Anandh).

"We couldn't leave it all out," shrugs Paddy, hence the integration of the Nirma banner and the pack shot underwater, instead of a mere pack shot towards the end.

The longer version of the film is playing in cinema halls, while some degree of outdoor is also being used for the campaign.

Take my breath away

The film has been directed by Shantanu Bagchi of Illusion Films, while Suparna Chatterjee has produced it.

The first task for the team was to find a troupe specialising in underwater dances. Russia and China were the two choices for shooting the film as there are local groups known for their aquatic dances there. However, these groups use oxygen tanks while dancing underwater, which was not what Illusion was looking for. Finally, a troupe from the US, called the Lux Aeterna Dance Company, was flown in to India.

All the shots have been done with the troupe holding its breath for 40 seconds to a minute, while the waterproof cameras rolled. There was no external oxygen support, although there were about six or seven scuba divers with oxygen supplies swimming around to help out of breath dancers in a sequence.

Once the camera started rolling, the dancers had to be in a specific position to capture the lighting just right, and to hold the correct posture and expressions. With the dancers holding their breaths, little time could be spent in getting this right. To ensure that the dancers were on the go from the moment they dived in, Illusion had the scuba divers mark their positions with 'stands': signals on where each dancer had to be, and the route to be taken by her for a particular shot.

The film was shot at Kalidas premises in Mulund, Mumbai, which boasts of a 15 feet deep swimming pool, while the dancers were easily 11 feet under. The team had to be particular that the tiles in the pool did not to show in the film, and to maintain the aesthetics of a sea-like sequence, a set was created inside.

The set - designed by KK Muralidharan of Xheight Design Studio and executed by art director Eldridge Rodrigues of Structural Fantasies - was made of fibre glass and had elements such as underwater plants and coral reef-like structures thrown in for effect. Vikas Nowlakha (incidentally, a scuba diver himself) was the director of photography.

The steps were choreographed by Jacob Kujo Lyons. The shoot took three days, while the pre-production went on for about two months.

Swimming in creativity?

To understand whether Nirma's attempt to be contemporary stands out in the 'sea' of ads on TV today, afaqs! sought opinions from ad-land and here's what some of them had to say.

Ambar Chakravarty, executive creative director, Publicis Ambience, likes the attempt - in the staid world of detergent advertising, it's certainly fresh. "Top marks for execution," he says. "The only thing I miss though is the point. I have a vague idea that it has something to do with colours, but a little more explanation wouldn't harm."

Amit Akali, group creative director, Ogilvy & Mather Bengaluru, feels this is a half-way attempt to contemporise the brand - while it looks radically different, it is still in the space of women dancing around, although in a different setting. "Also, just when you start appreciating that the look is dramatically non-Nirma, old elements are suddenly resurrected - the big branding, jingle and the Nirma girl - maybe they should have gone all the way and not just half way forward," he muses.

Chakravarty is more forgiving about the marriage of the old with the new. To him, the brand now needs to move to a more defined space where it stands for something and this commercial may just be the start of that. "I'd like to believe that this attempt is a transitory one, where old vestiges such as the jingle and the girl-in-the-frock still find mention, even as the brand takes on an edgier avatar," he opines.

Having said that, he observes wryly, "I'll bet the client forced that silly banner down the agency's throat, though. So on the whole, like my teachers always said, 'Good attempt, but can do better'."

On the music by R Anandh, Akali says that the operatic music gives it a larger than life, big film feel, but the jingle in the end 'jars'. "The music is obviously an improvement on the earlier films, where the jingle came throughout the film!" he exclaims.

Déjà vu?

Some tongues from the industry are wagging that the execution for Nirma borders on the same lines as the Cannes-winning 'Waterworld' ad for Ariston Aqualtis washing machines released in 2006. The ad showed an aquatic paradise of clothes, where laundry took on the shape of sea creatures, and only once the camera pans out does one realise that the water world is actually the view inside a washing machine.

Clearly, the Nirma attempt follows no such idea: the underwater ballet is a far cry from the washing machine world. But theories are floating around on execution references. Says Pushpendra Mishra, ad filmmaker, Flying Saucer Films, "I don't get the idea for Nirma as it is unclear what the film is trying to say. The core conceptualisation looks inspired from Ariston Aqualtis; one cannot escape that the execution is in the same space as the Cannes winner."

Shivendra Singh, ad filmmaker, Dungarpur Films, has 'no issues' with the supposed similarities. He allows that underwater shooting is a generic idea and the commonalities end with the fact that the two ads are for washing aids, and both rely on execution to make their mark. "But having said that, the Ariston Aqualtis one could well have been a reference point - the thought of rejoicing underwater and the ceremony feeling to it is similar," he infers.

Padhi of TapRoot will have none of it. "Neither Ariston nor Nirma invented films shot underwater. Johnnie Walker, Antiquity and many more brands have done it before. That is why waterproof cameras were invented," he quips. "The Ariston film shows clothes taking the shape of aquatic life inside a washing machine - I'll allow that it is a similar setting but a different thought altogether."