Devina Joshi

Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'

Creative directors, and even ad filmmakers, have often contributed to their creations in unexpected ways, such as acting in ad films, posing for print ads, giving voiceovers, or even composing tracks and tunes for commercials. A look at this lighter side of creative life

Many would know that actor Rahul Bose was a former copywriter with Rediffusion - Y&R, and his love for acting - greater than his love for writing - led him to quit the agency at the age of 26. Supermodel and actor John Abraham has a similar story, although his tryst with acting wasn't planned (see box in the story for more details).

Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
While these are freak incidents where admen ventured from behind the scenes into the limelight and made acting their full-time profession; there are several creative directors, and even ad filmmakers, who like to flirt with the camera every once in a while.

It's not just acting in ad films. Some admen have posed for print ads, while others provide voiceovers for ad films and radio spots. A creative director or two have even written lyrics and composed music tracks.

Just how far is a creative director/ad filmmaker willing to go to contribute to an ad beyond plain ideation and execution, and become part of the stage himself?

afaqs! explores how a creator becomes a part of his creation, in ways not traditionally expected of him.

How it all began

Practically every senior adman will have a story under his hat about "That day when the model failed to show up and they made me pose", or "When my voice in the rough edit was so well liked that it became the final voiceover".

Examples are aplenty. Almost two decades ago, Piyush Pandey, current executive chairperson and creative director, Ogilvy South Asia, started off by giving VOs for brands such as Fevicol and Hallmark cards, because of what he says was "lack of budgets".

However, those ads are what led to the discovery of his deep, emotion-laden voice. Pandey has done hundreds of voiceovers for radio and ad films since, including for IDBI (the recent elephant commercial), Asian Paints ('Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai' series), SBI Life Insurance (featuring the old couple) and LG corporate.

Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman and regional executive creative director (Asia Pacific), McCann Erickson, is another adman who has given VOs aplenty, for ad films such as X-Box 360 (where he asks 'Where is thee Ghee?'), Tata Indicom ('Chal chala chal' featuring Ajay Devgn and Kajol) and the more recent Alpenliebe 'Jee lalchaaye' ad (where he has provided the monkey's voice). On radio, he has done VOs for Alpenliebe, Hanes, Fevicol and Asian Paints.

Going a step further, Joshi has also composed music tracks for ad films. He has even sung jingles, for Babool ('Subah Babool ki toh dinn tumhaara'), Happydent White ('Tera dil roshan, tera mann roshan', along with Kailash Kher) and the upcoming Greenply film.

For ING Vysya's 'Paisa sirf Paisa nahin' film, Joshi composed the music and wrote the lyrics. He also had a tryst with the camera years ago, in a film for Coca-Cola called 'Sehwag ke Thande Funde', where he fired away questions to Sehwag.

Both Joshi and Pandey have been conferred with the Radio Voice of the Year award at Mirchi Kaan.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, executive creative director, Ogilvy India, modelled during his early days in the industry, and has acted in films for Fair & Lovely, Peter England (opposite Kareena Kapoor), and even an international film for Gibson Guitars.

Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar of Bates 141 acted in the 'hospital' sequence in the Tata Safari Dicor 'Reclaim' film. Nitesh Tiwari of Leo Burnett has given character voices for Tide and Reliance Mobiles; Ashish Khazanchi of Publicis Ambience dubbed for an award-winning radio spot for; Manoj Shetty is known as 'the voice guy' at Ogilvy; VR Rajesh of servicing at Ogilvy and copywriter Delara Lalwani have acted in quite a few films (Lalwani was last seen in a Dove Naturals ad).

Of course, creative persons, who model or act in other agencies' films, have to ensure that the brand being advertised does not conflict with brands that their own agencies work on.

Not only creative directors, prominent ad filmmakers too have tried their hand at acting and voiceovers. Prasoon Pandey (Corcoise Films), Abhinay Deo (Ramesh Deo Productions) and Ram Madhvani (Equinox Films) give voiceovers like it's a part of life.

For a Tata Sky film that made use of animation, the voice to be used was that of Daler Mehndi's brother, Mika. However, ultimately, it was found that the animator, E Suresh's voice suited the track perfectly, and was therefore used.

Can you handle it?

Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
Spotlight's on you: when creative folk say 'Cheese'
A theatre background/voice training helps in such creative pursuits, for better emoting. Chattopadhyay, Joshi, Prasoon Pandey and Gajraj Rao for instance, have all dabbled in theatre, which helps them in their performances.

The motivation to be a part of one's own creation arises from several factors. It could be due to something as simple as a budget crunch; or for creative satisfaction; the 'fun' element; or an attitude of "Let's do something different".

Often, the decision is spontaneous and impulsive. For instance, Chattopadhyay recalls an incident at a shoot in Singapore for Samsonite luggage, with Sonali Kulkarni. The director, Rajiv Menon cast Chattopadhyay aka Sumo as the male lead, since he had the long-haired look that was required of the male model. This saved the time, costs, and travel and accommodation planning that would have been required if a male model had to be brought to the locale.

Sometimes, it is a case of not being able to find someone appropriate. "So, it is a curious mix of convenience to have your 'model' ready with minimum fuss," Sumo says.

Khazanchi recalls another time when something like this was 'impulsive'. The first time he modelled was for a print ad for Ford Escort Tractors. During the photoshoot in Haryana the photographer suggested to Khazanchi - who sported a rustic looking moustache in those days - 'Why don't you wear a kurta and stand next to the tractor?'. And that was that.

In most cases, a creative person dons a different hat at the behest of someone in the creative team or the ad filmmaker. Do clients have any part in this process? Rarely, opines Khazanchi. "Often, clients want their ads to be aspirational, so I wouldn't fit in," he quips.

At other times, it may become awkward for a client to criticise the performance of someone from his own agency. As Ram Madhvani points out, sometimes, clients want a voiceover to sound like a voiceover.

However, some clients tend to welcome such creative participation, when the VOs or performances are done for free. To put it bluntly, every penny saved is a penny earned.

But in today's age, that is changing too. VOs in ads do not come for free even from their own creators, who charge fees just like professionals would.

Having said that, sometimes, VOs and acting prowess are 'distributed' free of charge by creative folk when it is an industry friend involved. Piyush Pandey lent his voice for the trailers of R Balakrishnan's Cheeni Kum, as "Balki's a friend, yaar!"

The 'why' of it

The creative fraternity is in agreement that stepping into another role is never done for the heck of it; as the final product is important and cannot be messed around with.

However, voiceovers by untrained people could actually help an ad stand out. As Abhinay Deo points out, "There are roughly 50 voices in the country today that are used in ads, out of which 10 are overused."

In such a scenario, a rare voice becomes unusual and provides variety, provided it fits the script. Similarly, if an adman is blessed with Greek God looks, or looks that match some quirky roles perfectly, casting him for freshness might not be a bad idea.

Gajraj Rao of Code Red, who has acted in films for Fevikwik, Fevicol and Mentos, says he learnt a lot about what actors go through. This learning helps him get better performances out of his actors when he is directing.

Then there is the obvious benefit of creative joy -- something that allows creative folk to experiment in different media, just like hobbies such as photography or painting would. This prevents burnout.

It comes from the feeling that something different has to be done; an unusual sound or face that hasn't been heard or seen. "And of course, if you cast someone who is a non-actor, it is an achievement," says Rao. "For a Sonata Watches film for Balki, I even cast my makeup artist as a salesman, because I wasn't getting the 'willingness' of a salesperson from some professional actors," he recalls.

"My voice is a bonus to what I create; and I enjoy it, so I do it," shrugs Pandey, putting it simply. Further, if one has an idea, but no money to support it; one might do whatever possible to help that idea to see the light of day.

Ram Madhvani concludes: "It isn't about making a Hitchcock-ian appearance or a Subhash Ghai appearance in your own ad film; it isn't about leaving your signature in an ad or even about ego satisfaction; it is a case of genuinely adding value to your ad film."

Some interesting facts about the creative fraternity
  • Piyush Pandey's first VO was for Fevicol in 1989 (the 'Dum lagaake haisha' ad). "We didn't have money for a separate recording so what we recorded in the presentation was used," Pandey recalls. The chorus comprised his Ogilvy colleagues and friends from theatre - 10 people in all including KK Raina and Vijay Kashyap.

  • Sumanto Chattopadhyay, on his colleagues and friends' insistence, got his portfolio shot years ago by then photographer (now actor) Boman Irani. Chattopadhyay has acted in around 15 commercials including an international ad for Gibson Guitars where he played a Maharaja - an ad that was directed by Gurinder Chadha of 'Bend it like Beckham' fame.

  • Ad filmmaker Gajraj Rao of Code Red Films has acted in several ads, apart from cameos in feature films such as Black Friday and Aamir.

  • 30 per cent of McCann Erickson India's employees have, at some point or the other, given voiceovers or acted in their own ad films.

  • Milind Dhaimade, erstwhile NCD at Everest and currently a director with Equinox, has done quirky roles for several ad films. Ram Madhvani and Sumantra Ghoshal of Equinox have lent their voices to many ads.

  • A few years ago, Abhinay Deo of Ramesh Deo Productions was induced by music composer, Ram Sampath into singing in Bappi Lahiri's bizarre style, for an 80s sequence in an ad for Tata AIG Life Insurance (the plant growing into tree commercial). Sampath felt that for such a track, Deo's voice was perfect.

  • Deviating a bit, actor and model John Abraham was a media planner with erstwhile agency, Enterprise Nexus. When a model failed to show up, Abraham was made to fill in, because of a deadline crunch. He is among the few admen who accidentally had a brush with modelling and converted that into a full-time profession.