Rishav Rastogi, Creative Director and Founder of Cellar Door Productions is an award-winning ad director who with over a decade of experience has risen above the clutter to become the youngest ABBY winner. In his interaction with Debashish Chakraborty of afaqs!, he talks about his artistic journey, his zeal for stories, and how advertising happened. He also opens up about his take on virality, taboo topics, favourite ads, what went in bringing home two ABBYs, and more.
From an engineering student to a successful ad maker. What led to this transformation and what’s it like looking back?
I think calling myself an engineering student, now, seems like taking it a little too far. As a graduation gift, instead of a bike or car, I requested my parents to fund a small feature film for me, based on a script I’d written in high school. They obliged and the film was made over a couple of years of engineering, teaming up with like-minded students. This was a turning point in my understanding of my passions. With that same group, I started an independent film and theatre production group. After college and a couple years of “engineering” work, we regrouped, incorporated a production house—Cellar Door Productions—and got into ad films. Ads allow me to follow the storytelling passion, to still express through the same medium, while also earning bread from the get-go.
You have worked extensively on several social taboos especially around feminine health and hygiene, what’s your take on that?
I believe the only way to make a taboo acceptable is to talk about it fearlessly while still being grounded in reason and not resorting to just rhetoric and chest-thumping. I’ve been confrontative and love debating for my case and more than a director of such films, I feel like an advocate who happens to be an artist.
If there’s a project that involves challenging taboos, and not just these ones, and making the world more reasonable and open, I love if a brand gives me the freedom to express my case.
You have created ads for both television and digital, what's your approach towards catering to the audiences of these popular yet different communication mediums?
In the current spread, TV clearly has a much wider reach. And in our country, that means a wide variety in the target audience. So, the TV scripts themselves tend to be a little “safer”. Higher budgets, less flexibility to experiment, and tight time constraints. Since it has to be short yet relatable, there’s fun in discovering that universally relatable treatment or character insight that conveys the point succinctly.
Digital, of course, gives you more flexibility and usually I’m talking to an audience which isn’t too different from myself. But then you have to learn how to not get carried away.
I think both media can make you a better director if you know what to learn from each.
In today's age of virality, how do you stay true to your craft while simultaneously delivering meaty content that aligns with the brand's proposition?
I love the line by David Ogilvy that if it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative. So I am not usually convinced with virality being the sole purpose. I think that’s an incomplete goal. Be clear—whether you want to entertain, or you want to do business. Both can co-exist in a film, but the primary purpose has to be clear and uncompromised.
Since ad films act like a mirror to society, what inspirations have you drawn from real life and portrayed in the advertising world?
Funny that you bring that up. This Father’s Day, I wrote and directed a film about how fatherhood changes young men. I became a first-time father three days post the release of that film. The Men’s Day film I’d written and directed for UrbanClap emerged out of my questioning of chivalrous traits in men. Because a lot of them could be termed sexist. So I thought, women can still want men and vice versa without “needing” them. And so, there was that film which aimed at placating the polarization between the genders.
Q. With brands like UrbanClap, Facebook, HealthKart, Marico in your kitty, which is your favourite ad film/campaign? How did it help you to become a better ad maker?
A. In no particular order, my favorites from a craft (not an ad) point of view would be the UrbanClap June 2018 TV campaign with Chhavi Mittal and Sumeet Vyas, the Sirona Cup launch film, the ETMoney Shoes and Gadgets#AapkiJebHithMeinJaari talking campaignfilms, the Kotex Overnight Panties launch film, and the UrbanClap Mother’s Day 2019 film.
But more than these, I think the ones NOT on this list have made me a better filmmaker.
The first silver was completely unexpected and really boosted our confidence. Then for the gold was even more unexpected—we didn’t even attend the event assuming there’s no chance but won against some major heavyweights. Both were made on shoestring budgets, but they had a unique voice. Just keep working hard and nurture your own voice and don’t echo someone else’s.
You have donned the hats of a director, writer, editor, and even an actor; and sometimes simultaneously. How do you draw the balance and which hat do you love to wear the most?
Till a couple of years ago, I used to edit almost all of my films because I love editing. I write and direct according to the edit, which allows completely creative control. But then with the quantum of work growing, I cut back on the editing and reserve it only for projects very close to my heart. I did theatre for a couple of years and I love acting but only when I really love the character and the script. Anyway, choosing one, it has to be direction. The dynamism and opportunity to understand the 360-degree view is unparalleled.