Meet the adman who directed Badhaai Ho - the first feature film from an ad-focused production house to breach the Rs.100 crore mark.
When asked to recall moments in his life and career - say, how he surprised his mother back home in Delhi after a long work schedule in Mumbai, how he pretended to tie his shoelaces when touching the ground after landing in Mumbai on his first flight ever, or when he saw filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar using a hair strand to get a sticker off the ground for a shot - Amit Sharma visits his memories frame by frame, narrating each instance like a script.
"Acute observation is a trait that compensates for the lack of others," says the the 37-year-old seasoned ad filmmaker - 1,800-odd films till date - whose journey has hit a high with the recent success of his latest feature film Badhaai Ho, a simple story about a middle aged, middle class couple in Delhi that deals with an unexpected pregnancy - and the family's reactions to it. Badhaai Ho is produced by Junglee Pictures and Chrome Pictures, which Sharma co-owns with with Aleya SenSharma and Hemant Bhandari.
The first feature film Sharma directed was Tevar, produced by Boney Kapoor (2015). "I'd been thinking about making a film for many years. Boneyji saw all my ads and asked me to make Tevar. Initially I didn't want to, as it was a re-make but he convinced me," he says. Tevar was appreciated for its stylised treatment but didn't have much box office impact. Badhaai Ho's fate is delightfully different - it has made Chrome the first ad-focused production house to make a '100 crore film'.
Was this a surprise for Sharma and team? "One really can't predict what will be liked. I felt people would like this film but didn't imagine this level (of success)..." fields Sharma, adding, "I'm an ad guy and I like making idea-driven films. This film is based on a big idea. I didn't think about audience reaction or who would be acting in it. I like working on relatable characters and exploring the equations between family members." While Badhaai Ho is centered on a 51-year-old lady getting pregnant, it was more about the intimacy between the couple, he insists.
How was the idea born? Akshat Ghildial, one of the writers in the film, a former McCann Delhi hand, had written this for one of his clients in 2012. Somehow, it was never presented; the client, we learn, had already green-lighted something else. "Then in 2015, I heard it as a one-line idea," shares Sharma, "We both felt it was feature film idea. Akshat and Shantanu Srivastava started writing it soon after."
For many, Badhaai Ho is a comedy and a drama in equal measure. When the process began, Sharma didn't have any particular genre in mind for the film. "I just wanted it to be funny and sensitive. Films are impactful when they make you cry or laugh hard. This was really just about telling a good story. The characters need to have their own back-stories too - that is, their reasons for behaving the way they do. I do that in ad films as well," he says, underscoring the importance of the director's involvement in the story from scratch, as opposed to stepping in only at the filming stage.
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About the shoot, he tells us, "The simpler the film, the tougher it is... big scale movies use massive, wide shots, but those are not difficult. In action films there can be engrossing action sequences where it doesn't matter if the audience remembers what happened before it. But when it comes to creating a family, you really want the audience to become a part of their world, to be engaged with their highs and lows," likening the process to creating a symphony wherein each character and each scene has to be in sync, with no room for a false note.
"Because one would've met such characters in real life, it was even more important to depict them well. Also, all our actors understood the tone of the film well..." he says.
Veteran actor Surekha Sikhri (cast in Badhaai Ho) has said that Sharma is an "aesthetically alive" director with a strong eye for detailing.
Be it Google's famous 'Reunion' (2013), Big Cinemas' 'Silent Anthem' (2011), or Jammu and Kashmir Tourism's 'Warmest Place on Earth'(2017), Sharma's films are able to evoke emotions even on repeat viewing - a mark of a well-told story.
"Friends and relatives used to say, 'Yeh ad director karta kya hai? Film toh start hote hi khatam ho jaati hain!' My mother would end up showing them shoot-time photos of me instructing my cast," Sharma recalls.
Delhi to Mumbai via Pradeep Sarkar
"I come from a family of government servants and 'did theatre' since I was a kid, but never imagined I'd be a filmmaker. My father was concerned about me, but my mother had faith that I would 'do something'," he reminisces.
When his mother (who worked in Doordarshan's engineering department) once asked him if he'd model, he felt he could be a 'hero'. Through someone in Contract Advertising he got through to filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar. "I used to call him persistently; finally his production manager asked me to come with a friend for a Limca scratch film (around the late '90s). I thought I was the lead, but ended up among the kids in the background," he jokes.
Soon Sharma got another call from Sarkar's crew for a shoot in Manali for Oracle, a logistics brand. "It was my first time facing the camera. Also, in those 'no-effects' days, I was mesmerised by dada's filming tricks. I wanted to work with him, but he told me to complete twelfth grade first!" he says. Sharma's father even tried to make him take typing lessons, though there were computers then.
Incidentally, he now adds his father Ravindernath's name to his, in movie credits. "He's a discerning film buff who never misses a release, and can rightly predict the fate of a film," he says of him.
Meanwhile Sarkar left Contract to start his own company (FatMan Films, later re-named Apocalypso) in Delhi, and Sharma was his first employee "It was gruelling. He told me if I survived for a year, I would do this for a lifetime... if not, I'd be a grocery shop owner or a property dealer," laughs Sharma. He worked across departments - costumes, props, wake-up calls, shoot, as well as pre- and post-production. "It was only three years later that I understood that I was an AD (Assistant Director)," he jokes.
Eventually, Sarkar's production house shifted to Mumbai; this was the 18-year-old Sharma's first time away from home. Those early emotional reunions with his folks are the inspiration for some of his work, he feels. His mother wanted to see him direct Amitabh Bachchan one day, but passed away before he did the KBC promos.
Sharma who grew up in a refugee colony in Jungpura Extension, Delhi, filmed parts of Badhaai Ho at his own school (Balvantray Mehta Vidya Bhawan). "The dadi, and the parents' characters were based on my own. We lived in a joint family - the dynamics and banter have made it to my work. Moreover, the basic plot may seem unusual to a Millennial, but was not unusual in the past; "my grandmother and my grandmother's mother were pregnant at the same time..."
"My grandmother had handed over all her valuables to her best friend - a Muslim girl called Rajjo- before escaping from Pakistan," he adds. The 'Google Reunion' film, a landmark one for him, gave him an opportunity to tap into these stories.
It all began with...
At 21, when Sharma made a short film called 'Free Falling' on a Hi8 camera, he felt he could direct ads. Two years later, Sarkar gave him a 10-second buy-one-get-one promo for Usha Fans to direct, and another for Marbel Candies (with Josy Paul).
So, Sharma and team come from the 'Pradeep Sarkar school of emotional stories'. In the early days, the concern was they'd limit themselves to that type. "Aleya had faith we would crack the 'style' ones too," he says, highlighting the need to defy slotting films into - humour, emotions, hair, beauty, brand specific.
In 2005, Aleya Sen (who worked with Sarkar too) and he decided to move on and start Chrome Pictures. "Aleya's father (Niloy Sen) was with JWT so she was familiar with the ecosystem, and encouraged me to become a director. Hemant Bhandari, my childhood friend who worked with Shoojit Sircar, also joined us."
For folks used to toiling day and night, the sudden lull was unnerving. "In the beginning, we got 10-15-seconders for Horlicks, Maltova and Boost. When Horlicks' famous 'Epang Gopang Japang' ad (directed by Sarkar) was to release in Burma, JWT asked us to do some patchwork for it- basically, adding a Burmese mother sequence at the end. With whatever money we made from it, we shot a (Hanes Undergarments) film for McCann (for Raghu-Manish Bhat), free of charge. The client liked it and paid production costs - the 'Kachchewali film' as it was known became our first popular one!" he laughs. Hanes brought in the awards, and scripts started rolling in at Chrome. Kellogg's, Sonata Watches, and Idea were among the earlier brands the firm made films for.
The Directorial Process
"I don't read scripts; I hear them out loud to connect and visualise. If you see it in a certain way, your conviction can make others see it too," says Sharma about his process, going on to reveal that he doesn't rely on storyboards much. "The AD does make them, but then people bury their heads in printouts. I like to narrate. Before a shoot, I don't plan much, or write down shots. I simply ask for the set, camera and actors and they leave it to me," he explains.
Most of his ads are set to some exceptional music. He says, "I play some relevant music when I shoot, emotional films especially. But I don't give any music references to clients."
The emotional scenes in Google's 'Reunion' ad were filmed to Piyush Mishra's songs from Coke Studio, for instance. "Sukesh (Nayak) had Neelesh Jain from O&M write the final song. I wanted it to be nostalgic; the team was a bit hesitant... finally, we got Mishra to sing it," he says.
Another memorable emotional film was Big Cinemas' 'Silent Anthem'. The use of slow motion and black-and-white imagery made it quite compelling. Is slow motion a common go-to for emotive ads? "Not always. In 'Reunion' nothing is in slo-mo, not even when they first face each other... except that last shot in the rain. In Badhaai Ho, I shot the climax in high speed (to enable slo-mo) but when I was editing it I took it back to normal. The drama was already there; it would've become overtly melodramatic..." he says.
How spontaneous a director is Sharma? "I do take hygiene shots but if something amazing and impactful happens on set, I use it. Spontaneity is crucial," he asserts, "Most films born out of research just die..."
But don't budgets limit the scope for spontaneity? "There may be client pressure but you can show them your way. It depends on the rapport. For SBI Life, I was shooting for Piyush (Pandey) Sir, with a couple in a car. I needed 45 seconds to play out the song; there were constraints but Sir allowed it," he says.
Underscoring the fact that directors have to think on their feet, he says, "In the same film, we had to show rain on a running car. And the guy didn't know how to drive - (he fibbed in auditions!) - so we got the car on a low-loader and added water drums as we needed a constantly wet windscreen..."
Direction in the era of content
Isn't the advent of digital open season for directors looking to showcase their skills? Turns out, digital enables better showcase, but, counter-intuitively, the usual constraints persist. "Cutting painstakingly taken shots applies to digital too. The 'Reunion' film is five minutes long, but I was told people don't click when they see '5.0'. 'Make it say 1.59 or 2.59', I was told. The 'Jammu and Kashmir' film came to be known by its song 'Sahibo', written by a Kashmiri IAS officer. I was told to make it in two minutes, but the song took it to five..." explains Sharma.
Framing, art, costumes, sets, actors' expressions - one deep dives into the details in ad films. "I've learnt everything from advertising, specifically precision, detailing and the technical aspects," he says and adds,"I can never leave advertising, it's my first love".
Advertising also hones you well on the casting front. "I usually never get anyone till the last moment. And I love it when actors break my own first impressions," he reveals, adding that people from theatre tend to be fearless and malleable.
Speaking about his experience with marketers over the years, Sharma is of the view that they really do believe in "the value added by the director" today. Interestingly, marketers' involvement in the film making process and "ownership" of the ad film is higher today. They're also more accommodating of the director's vision.
Recalling the final film for Amazon's Chonkpur Cheetahs campaign, he says, "I wanted to change someone in the cast on shoot day; O&M Bangalore's Azaz (creative lead Azazul Haque) and the client Sumit Kapoor (brand marketing head at Amazon) agreed..." Nowadays, servicing folks also understand the value of a shot, the 'extra 5 seconds', the music, etc. and gun for the director's demands to be met.
Today, the audience landscape has changed as well. Previously, people would make up their minds about giving a film a shot by the look of the trailer; today, "word of mouth is crucial; the audience really has to watch a film and like it first. This is true not just for small films but for big starrers too..."
Of course we asked Sharma to compare the process of directing an ad film with a feature film: "In films, the director and writer have a husband-wife relationship. In ads, the two have a one-night stand equation."
What's next for Sharma? He's already back to directing ads. He's also busy prepping for his next feature film, a football biopic produced by Boney Kapoor.
Some more ad films made by Amit Sharma:
(This article was also published in our magazine afaqs!Reporter this fortnight - November 15, 2018 issue).
A Note From the Editor
A lot of actors say they learnt the basics of their craft from theatre, a medium they explored before coming to cinema... and one they sometimes go back to when they need to brush up on the basics. In the world of feature film making, I'm beginning to theorise, professionals who come from an advertising background tend to be like actors who come from theatre. They have a certain rigour and approach that's common to their kind and hard to miss. Not to say that those who don't come from advertising don't have their own kind of rigour, but those who do, can certainly be called a type.
Film director Abhinay Deo -who also comes from 'the advertising school' - once told us that when ad film makers direct feature films, they tend to be extremely detail oriented. Makes sense. If you have just 30 seconds to tell someone the lady on the screen is a housewife, or that the man in the frame is a delivery boy, you'll use every possible creative shorthand and symbolism to convey that as quickly as possible. That's also why we spot so many clichés in ads; not every stay at home mom wears a saree and bindi, and not every delivery boy, a cap. Which is why, when you give an ad film maker three hours to tell a story, it's open season.
When I interviewed Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, art director turned feature film director (Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly Ki Barfi) few years back, she said, about the process of filming, “Each scene is like an ad film for me...” Copywriter turned feature film director and script writer Nitesh Tiwari (director of Dangal) said to me, "Advertising has brought discipline to my film writing..."
Badhaai Ho is ad film director Amit Sharma's most successful directorial venture in Bollywood so far. We spoke to him about his journey – and the process of shooting it.ASHWINI GANGAL