Meet Padma Bhushan awardees turned Vodafone actors: Shanta and Dhananjayan

By Suraj Ramnath , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 11, 2017
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These Bharatnatyam dancers have become the new faces of Vodafone 4G.

If you've been watching Indian Premier League matches, you've probably spotted a grandpa getting a tattoo and a granny going parasailing. They're Vodafone India's latest brand ambassadors for 4G - Shanta Dhananjayan, 73, and V.P. Dhananjayan, 78, now famous as Asha and Bala from Vodafone's SuperNet 4G ads. So far, six ads are out. The films promote the brand's data network that affords easy video calling, photo sharing, maps, video streaming and Facebook Live.

A real life couple from Chennai, Shanta and Dhananjayan are Padma Bhushan awardees (Arts); they're both award-winning Bharatnatyam dancers, who teach dance and run a business in Chennai.

So how on earth did they land up on our TV screens during IPL's ad slots? Dhananjayan tells afaqs!, "Nirvana Films (production house) approached us to do this campaign. When I heard that Prakash Varma is directing the Vodafone ads, which are written by Ogilvy, we ventured into it."

And guess what. Their Ogilvy connection runs deep; their elder son Sanjay works for Ogilvy New York. "He didn't know that we were being approached to act in these Vodafone commercials," Dhananjayan says, "When they (Nirvana) explained the copy, we found it very interesting. It was not like the usual ads. These were characters we were enacting."

Shanta adds, "When we were approached, it sounded pretty interesting and we really didn't think this was going to end up becoming such a large scale (campaign). It turned out to be very different from what we had envisaged earlier." No doubt, Shanta actually went parasailing to shoot for ad film No.4. Not to mention the other crazy things they did - riding a scooter, dancing on a boat, partying with strangers. No mean feat, all this.

Dhananjayan says, "It all happened suddenly in two days when we landed in Goa. Once we landed, the next day onwards, we were on the go. I don't know how to ride a scooter. I had a tutor but that didn't work very well. Then, we came across a person who resembles me closely. He came to our rescue - a real God-sent."

He goes on about the experience, "At least Shanta was wearing a saree; for me, wearing a shirt and shorts was difficult because I usually wear a veshti (dhoti) and jippa (kurta). The last time I wore a shirt and shorts was when I was a little boy. But I am open minded and wanted to experiment."

The dancing-on-the-boat ad must have been a breeze for these two dancers, right? Shanta answers, "That was quite challenging because though we are dancers, this was a different take completely. I enjoyed it. Every moment was so enjoyable and the whole unit was so engrossed in everything that was happening there. It was very hot and uncomfortable at times and we were sweating it out, but all that was worth it. Prakash (director, Nirvana) would just come and tell us, 'This is what you have to do. Now it's yours. You can do whatever you want.' We had to also remember that we were not ourselves; we were playing someone else and had to be 100 percent 'there'."

Interestingly, this is not the first time the couple has acted in an ad film. Recalling a Nerolac Paints ad, Dhanajayan says, "I once worked with director Rajiv Menon for Nerolac Paints. That was in Malayalam language for the Kerala market."

"Once I did an ad for Kumaran Silks. We've done an ad for a local ayurvedic oil company. The ad showed that after using that oil, we are still able to dance," laughs Shanta.

Talking about the reaction these ads have fetched, the couple tells afaqs!, "It has been fantastic. We have been getting calls and emails from all over the world. People are saying we are looking cute and natural - like we normally are."

Moments from the campaign, they tell us, that are being discussed the most include: the part where Shanta screams while parasailing, 'How do I come down?' and the part where she says, 'First time (in Goa) in 35 years' in the taxi segment. "People wait for those moments to come," Shanta laughs.

What has the Vodafone campaign done for the couple? Dhananjayan says, "People walking on the streets have started recognising us. They say, "We thought you are only dancers... now you are acting as well...."

He says, "Acting is a part of Bharatnatyam. It is exaggerated acting, but for this we need to have a natural flair," going on to tell us that he used to act in dramas as a child and that the experience came in handy here. Shanta says, "We breathe Bharatnatyam. We have a company, we perform, travel and now in our late 70s we are trying to take it a little easy... our students, younger son and daughter-in-law, help us with more activities..."

What next for this spunky couple? Tamil movies? "Sure, if it is a good character that will fetch me the best actor award then definitely yes," Dhananjayan signs off.

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