You must have definitely heard her voice on one of the commercials on television. After all, Richa Nigam, the voice behind Surf Excel's ‘Daag Achche Hain’ campaign, is a sought-after artiste in the business. After spending almost a decade as an independent voice-over artiste, her portfolio includes an array of commercials with the hottest brands, including Tata Indicom, Tata Sky, Brooke Bond, Pillsbury, Nutrilite Amway, Domino’s and Coca-Cola, among others.
From being a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather to an assistant director before finally taking the plunge as a VO artist, the mother of two has donned many hats. Her journey has been full of happy coincidences - one thing led to the other, is how she would like to describe it.
Nigam was working on Chak De! India as an assistant director at Yash Raj Films when Amit Akali and Malvika Mehra, her creative directors from her Ogilvy days, contacted her.
In 2006, when she first entered this space, advertisers and marketers were crazy about having that near-perfect mellifluous voice in their brand films. But, Nigam did manage to carve her own path despite her imperfect voice, or maybe, because of that. Over the course of time, her unconventional vocal cords made her stand out and today, she has her kitty full with successful brand commercials.
Looking back, Nigam recollects recording an ad film for Frankfinn. "I still remember the brief - the film was about a girl who was born in a small town but dreamt of flying big. The director wanted a slightly unpolished, non-city voice,” she recalls.
Her days in college theatre helped her get under the character’s skin, “but to put everything - every hope, every dream, all her determination just in the voice, without using your hands or face was a new experience for me. Getting her voice and her inner landscape right was vital. We did a couple of takes before it got okay-ed,” says the former student of St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.
“I remember getting into the train feeling happy because that day it felt like my life had touched this girl’s life in some way. A month later, a friend called me from a movie theatre and asked if it was my voice in the ad! That was a thrilling feeling - to know you had been a part of something made well, an experiment that had worked. I loved the lines Pushpi (Pushpinder Singh, the creative head) had written: “Main alag thi, main udna chahti thi,” she says.
Talking about her next stint, she shares, "In 2007, I was casting for an ad for Tata Indicom, directed by Prakash Varma from Nirvana Films. I got a call for a recording and was super excited because this time it was no longer just an experiment. It was for the ‘Runner’ film, written by Anshumani Khanna, Manish Bhatt, and Raghu Bhat. It was evocative writing. And standing there in the booth, with the headphones blocking out everything and the script in my hand, there was an instant connection. I felt for the first time that maybe I could be good at this. It’s one thing to absolutely love what you’re doing but another to know that you have what it takes to make a difference, and add value in a way that only you can."
She couldn’t see herself making a career of it.
"Some work started trickling in but a lot of it was hit-and-miss. I’d spend hours on an ad in a studio and then see it on TV with someone else’s voice. This was 2008. At that point, we still had perfect, smooth, ‘good girl’ voices in advertising. My voice was ‘too real’. It was too much of a zor ka jhatka!,” she laughs. Around that time, Vinil Mathew (a veteran ad filmmaker) directed Surf Excel Dog commercial and it turned out to be a game changer for Nigam. "Suddenly, my voice became acceptable. It led to people reaching out and sending more assignments my way.”
However, she doesn't like to label it a 'struggling phase'. "I saw it as a passion project. I loved doing it, but could only do it alongside my main work, which was being an AD. At some point, there was enough work to make it my primary job."
We asked her to pick the most challenging pieces of work so far and in what ways those experiences liberated her as an artist.
"Every time I walk into the booth and hold a mic, it’s a new experience that requires a new approach or a new understanding. For the Surf Excel ad, I wanted to make it sound natural and not didactic in any way. This was to give the sense that life happens when you’re feeling it, and not just following a set of rules. But the most challenging one was Paper Boat’s 'Drinks and Memories'. I remember the director knew exactly what he wanted, and I kept trying different emotions and tones. Nothing worked, but after a while he stopped me and said, “Just say it straight.” And that’s the take that worked best. It was challenging because I realised that holding back emotions and saying things without embellishment isn’t easy. When I walked out, I was certain that my voice would be rejected." But she was proved wrong.
Apart from her aversion to fairness creams, she's quite fuss-free when it comes to picking her projects.
“Let’s remember that in advertising, the client chooses you. If it were up to me, I’d work for them all!" she quips.
How involved are the marketers/advertisers in this entire scheme of affairs?
"Some of them are really passionate about the brand and some are just excited to be in the studio, to see it come alive. Sometimes there’s a lot riding on one communication, and you’ll have everyone from the brand manager to the creative director, the director, and the writer all cramped in a studio," she says.
“Thanks to WhatsApp now, it’s happening less. You do a recording and the whole film along with music and VO is sent to the client who gives you his feedback. So you may be working with the director of the film only or his assistant. Their presence is remote but it’s as involved. I’ve had very precise feedback from creative heads or managers speaking from China or Goa but they ask me if I can say a line differently because they have something else in mind for that shot,” she reveals.di
What has remained constant is the passion for the communication by teams. She goes on, “Nothing can beat the excitement you feel once you crack the exact ‘sur’ for a film...there is a collective sigh of relief in the room, you can feel it.”
Digital has changed the whole landscape dramatically as three and five minute films went on to become the 'new normal'.
"In the beginning, everyone was thrilled to finally break free of the 30-sec format. I even remember working on a really poetic, eight-min film. But now that's all settled and back to normal, even on digital formats.
"What hasn’t changed though is the attention to detail you need for them. You know those people who paint on a grain of rice? It’s like that. As a voice over, I’m aware that even releasing breath is emoting," she explains.
The other difference, according to Nigam, is that over the last ten years the women depicted in advertising have changed. “When I started out, there were enough young women speaking to you. They were nostalgic about what they were leaving behind, hopeful about the new lives they were embarking on, often introspective, sticking to their beliefs quietly. Now most of the women I meet on the screen are sure of themselves. They’re striving hard and they’re winning. I love it!” Well... so do we!
Apart from being a self-proclaimed bibliophile and a Potterhead, she also opens up about a few things she does to hone her craft daily.
"Voice exercises, breathing exercises are the bedrock on which this art rests," she shares.
Her idea of a perfect day?
"Curled up in a corner with my invisibility cloak on and reading to my heart’s content. Reading just gets me back to seeing, feeling... something that is at the heart of being a voice over artist for me - to be able to hear the voice on the page and to deliver it as honestly as possible," she signs off.
A quick roundup of the most memorable ads she has worked on ..