Shreyas Kulkarni

Neerja and Aarya director Ram Madhvani on storytelling in 10 seconds, the incoming directorial talent, and A.I.

He’d prefer humans to use artificial intelligence than the other way around.

Ram Madhvani is an ace ad film director behind popular commercials for Airtel, Happydent White, Adidas, Asian Paints, Amazon Kindle, and Frooti, among many others. He has won several awards for his work including metals at Cannes Lions.

He also directs movies and shows and wore the directorial hat for Neerja and the Disney+ Hotstar show Arya. Madhvani has co-founded Equinox Films, Ram Madhvani Films, and Equinox Virtual (gaming and virtual experiences).

Speaking to him on the sidelines of Goafest 2024, we (afaqs!) posed questions on storytelling in the age of 10-second ads, his take on the incoming directorial talent, artificial intelligence, and long-form storytelling in gaming.

Edited Excerpts:

1. Most people do not have the patience to sit through a 10-second ad. How do you, as a director, go about storytelling in such times?

I think the audience is increasingly brutal and making sure we give them something. I am okay with 10 seconds and even five seconds. I am okay with one second too (laughs).

In the age of distraction, how do I keep you from looking at your phone? If I can’t, it means I lost you in a second. It is not every minute that counts; I have to make every second count.

2. What is your take on the quality of writing today compared to a decade or two ago?

Trying to grab the audience (attention) has become more and more competitive and therefore, the pressure to do that leads to all kinds of creative solutions. Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not work. But you are therefore trying more and more to see how not to be noisy in a noisy world.

3. Speaking of not being noisy in a noisy world, several youngsters are uploading content they’ve shot using their phones to short-video sites. What is your take on the directorial talent entering the field? Is shooting and uploading such videos helping them get a grasp on the craft?

Yes, I think that this is the great leveller. It is one of those crafts that unfortunately can only get better with practice. It is not a craft that you suddenly wake up and say, “I'm great.” It is like a muscle and that muscle needs to be practiced. So, the great thing is that we're now given opportunities to practice that.

4. And do you think it is better than a course at a film school?

I didn't go to film school myself. Though I did do short courses. I think the school of life is what you need to go to.

5. These days, people sit through hour-long streams of someone playing a game. Is gaming a new place for long-format storytelling today?

I think one of the things about gaming is that it gives you control and power and one of the things that we have not got to in long-format storytelling is interaction.

Currently, stories are being told to a passive listener. Gaming is for an active listener and I think that's really where we need to figure out how we can get storytellers actively involved within the interaction. It is not a one-way thing. So, gaming becomes a two-way thing.

6. If you could do it again?

I’m hoping that I'm doing it again every day. Every day is a new day. Every day is day one.

7. If you could do it again, would you prefer the big camera or your smartphone?

No, I'm okay with anything. That's medium and that's technology (smartphone). It's like a zoom lens, a trolley, or a phone. It doesn't matter. What matters is, has the human heart changed? And that's really what we need to be worrying about.

8. Even though we are seeing AI’s influence, do you think people are able to use AI just as a tool without letting it become a crutch?

First of all, because we were on a panel that was on gender (he was on a panel that discussed gender stereotypes in advertising), let’s try and make AI at least more women-centric. Second, I think that we are here to use AI. I am hoping that AI will not use us.

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