When Lowe Lintas was scouting for a model to essay the role of the ghattam player in the now-famous Pepsodent 'ghattam' commercial, the agency initially wanted to cast a traditional ghattam artiste for the role - for authenticity. But there was a hitch in this. Dyed-in-the-wool ghattam artistes apparently didn't find the idea of breaking the ghattam (an intrinsic element in the communication) all that appealing. Something to do with ill omen and whatnot.
The other option before the agency was to go for a standard commercial model. But that would have meant compromising on the 'look and feel' of the ad. After all, the model had to have all the physical traits of a typical ghattam artiste - paunch, thickset shoulders, plastered hairdo… and South Indian looks to boot. After much prospecting, the agency and the filmmaker finally found their man - a non-model who fitted the role to a T.
As it turns out, this 'model' is the makeup man of Tamil superstar Rajnikant.
This is just one example of the kind of effort that Indian ad agencies and filmmakers are putting into finding the right model for the right role. In other words, Indian advertising appears to have finally woken up to the criticality of casting, and its contribution to the success of a commercial. Which could explain why nowadays, more and more Indian commercials have 'real people' in them, instead of dolled-up mothers-of-two in pleated-to-perfection Kanjeevaram saris, and squeaky clean men reeking of after-shave.
Not to suggest that those awful picture-postcard commercials have been relegated to the archives. Even today, a sizeable chunk of Indian commercials shows the so-called harried housewife with every strand of hair in place. (Chances are, she'll be in a yellow-painted kitchen, wearing a yellow sari and chopping yellow tomatoes with a yellow… sheesh! And yes, one could replace the yellow with magenta or ultramarine blue or off-white. It wouldn't really matter.) But there's no denying that the winds of change are blowing, slowly but surely.
"The quality of casting has improved quite a bit, and the kind of people being cast in ads have also got better," agrees K.V. Sridhar, executive creative director, Lowe Lintas & Partners. "Today, you have more people with a background in theatre acting in ads. But that's happening in only 10 per cent of cases. In the remaining 90 per cent of ads, it's the same stereotypes - cutie-cutie children and plasticky moms. But the change is beginning to happen, and it's because of people like Prasoon (Pandey), Mahesh (Mathai) and White Light (Moving Picture Co)."
Sanjay Sipahimalani (Sippy), creative director, Grey Worldwide, feels that it's a trend that is reflected not just in commercials but also in mainstream Bollywood. "It's interesting to draw a parallel with Hindi cinema," he says. "People like Manoj Bajpai, Ashish Vidyarthi, Nirmal Pande and Chekravarthy (the hero of Satya) have become popular - none of whom could be said to be bestowed with classical good looks. Yet, they're cast because of their acting talents and their ability to inhabit the role. Much the same can be said of casting in commercials nowadays. The better producers feel the need to cast people whom the man on the street can relate to. Someone who suits the role and can act, rather than rely on chocolate looks alone."
One reason for this improvement in the quality of casting is the fact that today's TV commercials narrate human stories, "rather than get models to mouth manufacturese," as Subir Chatterjee, director with White Light, puts it. "Though the concept of looking at models as cardboard cut-outs and 'faces', and putting platitudes into their mouths is still quite prevalent," he adds.
Namita Roy Ghose, chairman & managing director, White Light, thinks the evolution of casting has to do with the way scripts are written. "White Light broke the stereotype that models need to look good," she says. "We started writing film scripts with real-life characters in them, and this caught on. There is a conscious attempt to build human peculiarities and idiosyncrasies into the script. As a result, the need for true-to-life actors has increased."
Geeta Rao, group creative director, O&M, feels this is the direct function of consumers empathizing with such commercials. "Consumers' tastes have changed in such a way that they relate better to ads where the models emote better. Be it the first Cadbury's ad ('girl dances on field') or the Onida 'old women' ad, consumers like the spontaneity of the situation. In the Onida ad, each woman is a character, though none are pretty or glamorous. One is naughty, one is stoic, but all are very human." Sridhar agrees about consumers liking human ads better, and adds that the portrayal of reality in commercials is happening the world over. "Take the Cannes reel, and what hits you is the casting and the pitching," he points out.
While on the one hand the demand for good actors has increased, the supply too has seen an upswing. "In the early days, we had to work hard to get a good actor," says Namita. Incidentally, White Light claims to have discovered Boman Irani, Vijay Patkar and Dhara-kid Farsaan, among others. "We had to look in the regional theatre circuit and school dramatics forums. However, now there are more actors available, and this has been pushed by the TV explosion. As the exposure is high, and TV offers the room to showcase potential, more people are readily coming into TV. And this benefits advertising."
But if there are more actors and actresses of mettle today, why is it that, at the end of the day, the same set of talented models keeps getting repeated in ads? And what about the way models are getting typecast into roles?
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