N Padmakumar spent 17 years of his life in the ad industry before he decided he wanted to try his hand at different forms of storytelling. In 2012, the former national creative director at Rediffusion put down his papers to pursue a different path. Since then, he has gone on to direct a feature film and, most recently, create an OTT show that is now available for streaming on MX Player. The show is titled "Thinkistan - Idea Jiska, India Uska." The series follows Hema (played by Shravan Reddy) and Amit (played by Naveen Kasturia) who work at a fancy, fictitious ad agency called MTMC.
The former is an English-language, trainee copywriter while the latter is a Hindi copywriter. We were intrigued by an OTT series about the Indian advertising industry, especially one created by a former adman. We caught up with Padmakumar to learn more about his newest venture.
Our first question, naturally, was how the idea of creating a series like Thinkistan originated. He told us that the Times of India initially approached him to write a story on fashion, but he felt that the topic was somewhat one dimensional. "Instead, I suggested that I write a show that has fashion subsumed in it and also makes a viewer think, while chronicling a certain era in our country," he explained.
About how the deal with MX Player came about, he told us that he didn't know the show was going to air on the platform. TOI approached him to create a show for their OTT platform in 2017 and along the course of writing and producing it, they acquired MX Player.
Keeping in mind that the show is set in Mumbai 1996, it makes sense when he mentions that the series goes beyond mirroring just the ad industry in India. He added, "The values of India have changed and so has the approach to advertising. I see it as a microcosm of what India as a whole has evolved to. In the upcoming seasons, there'll be references to the change in the political climate, the growing influence of the right wing, questions about the ethics of advertising, and its stature as the most elite profession of all."
Though the series closely examines the ad industry, he makes it clear that the characters are fictitious and are a mix of traits of the people he has worked with in the past. He claims that the percentage of fiction in the show is around 75 per cent, if not more. He points out there are insights he has used - such as the fact that advertising has a huge number of divorcees. "There are a lot of such similarities to how advertising is in real life, but the individual stories are all fiction..." he explained. "Hema is not necessarily based on me, but my name is Padmakumar and everyone calls me Padma. I definitely wanted a guy who had a feminine name. His life story is also similar to other people that I know. The other lead character Amit is loosely based on someone who worked with me but it's also loosely based on other people who worked with me at different agencies...," he outlined.
He mentioned that the first episode had an anecdote from his own life. The protagonist is chased by dogs at 3.00 am after leaving work late and in the series, he is saved by a pretty girl driving a car. He pointed out that in reality, it was a cab that picked him up. He promised that the show would be filled with more such amusing anecdotes.
He points out that the era, i.e. the late nineties, was a time when companies were discovering the need to go local and talk in a vernacular way. "Any story that wants to be memorable needs to chronicle a certain era and a certain ethos," he pointed out and went on to explain that this was the time when there was an influx of people into the industry from small towns like Meerut, Kanpur, Allahabad, Jabalpur, and Bhopal. They all came in at around that time with a lot of poetic and verbal talent and their films started getting noticed.
"Way back in 1999, we used to have this advertising get-together. It was a once in a year event called 'ad works'. Ad works was about all the advertising through the year that worked/didn't work; it discussed creative trends that were prevalent, that will happen in the future and so on. Piyush Pandey convened the meeting that year. He opened that presentation with the words - 'The days of Alyque Padamsee are dead.' It was as though he was saying - English speaking guys are history now..." Padmakumar recalls.
He told us that he was closely involved in every aspect of creating the Thinkistan. "I wrote the show from start to finish. I had my own mood board because I knew the kind of look I wanted to have (high key, low contrast) and I was there at every stage of the edit...," he said.
Padmakumar certainly has come a long way from a Master's degree in Statistics and Computer Science. In the nineties, his first job was at Tata Motors before a recruitment drive from Lintas in 1995 changed his career path. Here he had the chance to work under veteran Usha Bhandarkar, whom he admits, was the inspiration for the character of Anushka (played by Mandira Bedi) in Thinkistan. Padmakumar also stated that he tried to ensure he wasn't creating caricatures of anyone in the industry, but he admitted to having relied on archetypes to tell the story.
He took a break from advertising in 1999 to pursue an MFA in Poetry in the US, though he didn't complete the course. When he returned to Mumbai, he had a brief stint with MTV before re-joining Lintas India. That's when he had the opportunity to head the creative function at Lintas, Sri Lanka. He was 29 when the opportunity presented itself and he went on to work with Lintas in Sri Lanka and Delhi till 2003. After working with McCann Erickson Colombo till 2004 - he left the country in 2005. After that, he had a stint at Everest and his last role in Rediffusion in 2012 was that of national creative director. It was this role that made him realise he was stuck in a rut and that he wanted to get back to storytelling.
"Filmmaking is something I stumbled on. When I did a 'Billion Colour Story', I was very anguished about the kind of intolerance that I saw in the country and I put every penny that I had into making it. I didn't even know if it was going to get a release..." he admitted. The film went on to be quite successful, helping him and his son (who starred in the film) win multiple accolades.
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