The ad filmmaker and actor who features in current Bollywood blockbuster - Badhaai Ho, recounts his journey...
He's made 1600-odd films till date. "I'm still nervous about first reactions in PPMs. Everyone who wants it to do well is there and I'm telling them how we'll go about it. In the first five minutes, the ball is rarely on the bat." That sounds a little bit like Mr Kaushik - the character that Gajraj Rao plays in his latest movie.
Ad-man Rahul DaCunha's Facebook shout-out to Rao's performance states, "Carrying the film on his Mr Bean-like shoulders, dialogue-less darting eyes, perplexity, paranoia, pain, and pregnancy conveyed at various times. Not an expression out of place, no mannerisms, no 'let me maximise the moment a bit more', pure minimalism."
The same 'pair of eyes' also features on the poster of Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday. "I was stopped by cops a couple of times and had to clarify things," says Rao, smiling. The coy 'Kaushik Saab', that menacing voice in Aamir (2008), the mean cop in Talvar - it seems like Rao can play it all, thanks to his roots in theatre - something that also guides him while directing his cast in ad films.
"Films you watch once or twice, but you watch a TVC 50 times a week. Details are crucial and mistakes will be noticed...," he says and adds, "... Good timing is key across theatre, ads (especially the performance ones) and in movies.
"Films are mounted so quickly now. When I was an assistant 20 years ago, I remember there were barely a dozen prominent ad-filmmakers. There were few avenues for release and fewer TVCs. Clients could afford to wait for a particular director to get free. Now that universe has expanded massively," Rao explains.
"When Pradeep (Sarkar) dada was VP of Art at Contract, in the late 1990s, he wanted to direct, but there was no easy switching of roles in agencies then," recalls Rao. "Film (stock) was expensive and limiting. Technology changed that - when camcorders came in, one could experiment with scratch films - that was the transition phase," he adds.
Born in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, Rao grew up in a railway colony in Delhi. "Touring cities all over India with ACT 1 (his theatre group) - I got valuable insights. I see how the mobile has transformed the lives of village folk - they shop on Flipkart, are YouTube-savvy etc. When I go for PPMs, if a client says - why are you showing such a big TV in a village home, I can say - my uncles have one," smiles Rao.
Starting out in advertising as a 'permanent freelancer' with Sarkar, Rao started Code Red Films in 2003.
Edited Excerpts from a chat:
You decided early on that you won't be a full-time actor...
I've had days with no money when I was doing theatre (at ACT 1). I was averse to debt and knew movies would have lesser opportunities as I was particular about my roles. I worked small jobs - in a tailor shop, in a bookstore in Gole market and in a garment export firm. Later, Shoojit (Sircar) took me to Siddhartha Basu who created a position for me on his quiz show - I was an audience coordinator and helped with scripting sometimes. Once they were asked to do a quiz with under-trials in Tihar jail - I was given that - it was a great experience and it featured in the Limca Book of Records (for the first ever quiz in prison).
You mentioned it was a transition era when you entered advertising...
It was the time satellite TV entered India and clients felt ads in English were not working everywhere. People like Piyush Pandey were creating a new language and I could smell that I wasn't unwanted. My misconceptions (based on movies) on the elite being rude were broken. Ms (Syeda) Imam, at Contract, was among those elegant folk; she liked my writing.
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Earlier, when I would start speaking in Hindi at meetings, there was a sudden pause - mainly because it was unusual. But they did see that I understood the heartland.
In early days at Code Red, in a meeting with McDonald's (a client on the phone), I was taking time to explain things, Aggi (Agnello Dias) calmly took over. Nitesh Tiwari helped out in phone PPMs with Tide Singapore. But soon scripts were written in Hindi, albeit in the English alphabet.
How has the advertiser's approach to the process changed over the years?
Earlier, clients didn't familiarise themselves with the process too much; today they make dubsmash videos. They suggest cast, locations and are involved at every stage. Sometimes the references they give are contradictory. But I see their perspective. After the film, I'm done, but for the brand head, there's a lot at stake. Now all three entities - production house, brand and agency - are on the same page, with the same concerns, they're more approachable and flexible.
And what about the shift in audiences?
Boys in my village have seen Sacred Games and asked me why I'm not in it. What was risqué earlier is common now. A kiss is ok. In sanitary napkin ads, the language was clinical, focused on hygiene. We were told to hire someone 'who is 22, but looks young'. Now, you can hire a 13-year-old girl and depict her story realistically, not via those glamour shots.
After Basu, you worked for five years with Pradeep Sarkar on about 500 TVCs and 12-15 music videos (including the popular Euphoria ones)...
One day, as an actor, I went to Jain studios in Delhi; one just met 'somebody' there. It was at dada's (Sarkar) shoot that I ended up helping out on with production and props. I learnt everything about filmmaking from him. Besides assisting, I used to write and he valued my opinion.
Also, because he was from an agency, he always had that perspective. Some product categories would not interest even CDs, dada taught me that there was always a way to create magic, add some music - make a difference.
("These doors and walls are all dada's," an emotional Rao gestures across his office)
So two years after shifting to Mumbai you started Code Red Films with producer Subrat Roy and got your first break because of Dr Prannoy Roy...
Before we branched out everyone encouraged me, but not many picked up the phone later. I didn't have my own showreel, (no YouTube back then) so convincing people was tough.
We approached Raghu Bhat and Manish Bhatt (at Ambience) who asked us to shoot a 'handycam' film on the national anthem. We felt it could be our 'visiting card' and decided to do it on film, putting in all our money (some on credit). It was a huge production, which we shot in a day.
The film was two minutes long and everyone we approached asked for a shorter one. After 20 days, it reached Dibang of NDTV India who told us Dr Roy asked for it to be aired. It played from 14 August, every hour, on their two channels. We became 'legit' overnight.
You are known among young audiences as the 'TVF Dad'. And you feature in Love Per Square Foot - Netflix's first Indian film. Digital is great for talent - what about the impact on ad-filmmaking?
I feel web-series/OTT filmmaking is such a cohesive process. In Bang Baaja Baraat, the script was solid. But in advertising, in the last few years with digital, it's a bit like a food court; there was a certain purity before, it was all stylish, there was passion, time spent on writing, but there's some dilution now.
Negotiations go down to the last details sometimes. It's an era of unlearning for many of us who worked on elaborate shoots.
Digital gives you duration, but not enough costs were devoted to it and production values were expected to remain the same. However, many clients do understand; Flipkart was a good collaboration - if a setup became too expensive, they'd accommodate - they knew that the vision was intact.
Hyundai's Rohtang shoot went on for an extra three to four days due to rains and landslides. The agency stepped in and informed the client who paid the actuals right away. In the Women's Day film for Brooke Bond Red Label, everyone was aligned to the fact that shooting hours would be controlled; a client like HUL was ok too.
Digital or TVC, a set's raw material costs are the same. In tight budgets, you need to focus on writing and casting. But there is realisation dawning that 'lesser budget equals a smaller canvas'.
Some more films by Gajraj Rao: