Anirban Roy Choudhury
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"Must nudge people to go back to work": Balki on his government ad with Akshay Kumar

Take precautions, but do go out and work, says Bollywood star Akshay Kumar in the ad for the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Public service messages play a vital role, especially in difficult times. The government has the resources to reach out to millions with clear, concise and convincing messages.

Remember the sense of guilt invoked by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan's baritone - 'Do boond zindagi ke' in the 1990s? It forced parents to take their children to get the ‘two drops of polio vaccine’, and helped India in eradicating the disease. Similarly, actress Shabana Azmi's 'Choone se AIDS nahi hota, bas pyaar failta hai' helped educate people about the myths around sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV/AIDS.

Right now, India is in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. Throughout the course of several lockdowns, none of the campaigns from the authorities have stood out, in terms of quelling anxiety, busting myths, or even giving Indians the confidence to live in a society that hasn’t yet overcome COVID-19.

By mandating Corona awareness alert as caller tunes, the government did score early 'sixes'. A female voice, in a native language, depending on the region, explained the dos and don'ts to fight the virus each time someone dialled a telephone number. But that was it. There were no campaigns with popular film stars, and no clear and loud messages.

Now, the government has finally made an attempt to fill the gap. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) recently reached out to adman-turned-filmmaker R. Balakrishnan, popularly known as R. Balki, and actor Akshay Kumar. The duo recently made blockbusters like 'Padman' and 'Mission Mangal' together.

"The government reached out to us with a clear message, communicating that we need to learn to live with the virus, and responsibly get back to work, while taking all necessary precautions," informs Balki.

R. Balki
R. Balki

During lockdown, most of Mumbai was indoors. However, Balki and Kumar, along with 18 others, set up a unit in Kamalistan Studio. The crew, trimmed to one-third of what it normally is, travelled to the studio from various parts of the city and started filming. The ad film was just rolled out by the ministry.

It features a village setup, where 'Bablu', who’s played by Kumar, steps out of his home. Actor Atul Srivastava, who plays an elderly neighbour, taunts Bablu and reminds him that though the lockdown has come to an end, the vicious virus is still around... The film ends with the neighbour accompanying Bablu to work. Bablu reminds his neighbour to wear his mask, highlighting the importance of taking precautions.

"The virus is here to stay, and we have become too afraid of it. What we wanted to communicate is that while we need to take precautions, we can’t stop our lives because of the virus," says Balki.

The ministry shared a rough storyline, and Balki took it from there. "We were very clear that we wanted a logical flow, with absolutely no gimmick. A simple line of storytelling, with no scope for anyone to misread it," he explains.

"Now that we have taken precautions and understood the danger, it is time to begin life, otherwise the consequences would be far worse than the disease."
R. Balki

Meanwhile, the government has also just announced ‘Unlock 1.0’, with the intention of gradually crawling back towards normalcy. Analysts estimate that India's economy could contract by six per cent, which highlights the importance of Indians returning to work.

Balki believes that as the lockdown eases in different states, it’s important for people to responsibly go back to their respective workplaces. "It has been two to three months of actually sitting at home, or working from home. There are a lot of people who don’t work from home, and are just sitting idle. It is also important to nudge people to go back to work and communicate that if they don't go to work, the country will suffer." This is another important message that, Balki says, the government wanted to communicate through the film.

"First, it was important to say it is dangerous, and please take precautions. Now that we have taken precautions and understood the danger, it is time to begin life, otherwise the consequences would be far worse than the disease," opines the maker of 'Paa', 'Cheeni Kum', and many other Hindi movies.

From the late Rajesh Khanna's 'Babumoshai, mere fans mujhse koi nahi chheen sakta' for Havells, to Tata Tea's iconic 'Jaago Re', Surf Excel's 'Daag acche hai', and 'What an Idea Sirjee!' for Idea Cellular, Balki has many successful ad campaigns in his portfolio. However, this one was different. It not only had a ‘trimmed’ unit, but Balki also had to coordinate with editors, sound engineers, and others in the post-production team, virtually.

The editor showed him edits over video calls, the colourist and the director of photography also connected virtually. While filming the ad, there were doctors present on set, screening temperatures, and sanitisation was carried out throughout. "The first 10 minutes were different, and then it all fell in place," says Balki.

R. Balki with his crew at the set. Credit: Roshaan Garry
R. Balki with his crew at the set. Credit: Roshaan Garry

While Balki is used to shooting ads with 60-70 people around him, he only had 20 this time around. "It was very efficient," shares the former chairman of Mullen Lowe Lintas, adding, "You only need 20 people to make an ad film." When asked about his experience of shooting an ad again, Balki was quick to remind, "I might have left the advertising business, but I never stopped making ads."

He appreciated the willingness shown by the cast and crew, "Remember, this is not a commercial project, but a public service messaging. It was fun shooting with Akshay and Atul, and we did it when nobody was stepping out in Mumbai. Especially the crew, the way they got ready was really phenomenal."

It remains to be seen if this government ad film manages to nudge the country's working class in the direction it wants (to). If it does start any kind of movement, then it might very well end up reviving the economy.

"Both Akshay and I found it important to make the film for the government," Balki concluded.