Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2016

Love thy neighbour – but on your terms

The pros and cons of using Indian ad directors.

Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

If you work in advertising or marketing communication, and making a television commercial or two is part of the quarterly plan, then on more than one occasion you have probably toyed with the idea of engaging an Indian director.

There are many reasons why this thought occurs to us. There is an upside and downside to engaging a production company and director from across the border. Without getting into a rabidly nationalistic frame of mind, here are my 10 cents worth based on past experience.

The upside

India has a huge film industry. A huge cache of producers and directors. You will be spoiled for choice. Plus, no availability issues.

Indian directors also seem to have very distinct styles – the number of times a client has longingly cited Tanishq commercials could inspire a drinking game. We love the subtle acting and ‘real’ feel. And blame local directors for being ‘unable’ to produce that look.

There are not enough good quality directors here. The ones we would like to work with are either unable to deliver within the dates or exceed the budget. The truth is, we have just a handful of directors to resort to – five or six at best – who are the first choice to deliver a quality project.

Not only that, just consider the casting options available. Suddenly you are not at the mercy of two mediocre talent agencies, but are spoiled for choice with dozens of excellent options, customised casting, etc.

Shooting in Bangkok? No problem. Indians get visa on entry. In case one of your cast members drops out at the last minute, just fly in the back-up.

Why on earth would you not consider this seemingly perfect alternative?

The downside

When we decide to work with our neighbours, the top tier directors, the ones we admire so much, are way beyond our budgets, even in Indian rupee terms. Add to that conversion to a weaker Pakistani rupee, some heavy duty remittance/withholding taxes, and a production with your much-coveted director suddenly costs a fortune.

If we are able to spring the money for a high-end director, he knows this will in all probability be a one-off. The local client will not have the marketing budget to use the director on a regular basis. On the other hand, he has more than enough work back home. So he – as we would say in local parlance – pailos it. Shoots the film on autopilot. If you are shaking your head in disbelief, please refer to the beverage film with the superhot movie star aired last year. Yes, the one that you ripped apart on social media. Directed by Pradeep Sarkar, no less. Or the telco film with the young doctor calling her father after her patient dies – directed by Anurag Kashyap. Neither of the films measured up to the name attached.

Luminaries like Priyadarshan and others have directed Pakistani films. Bet you can’t remember which ones. If you expect them to produce the same masterpieces for the Pakistani market, don’t hold your breath. They won’t. They don’t need to.

When we decide to work with our neighbours, the top tier directors, the ones we admire so much, are way beyond our budgets, even in Indian rupee terms. Add to that conversion to a weaker Pakistani rupee, some heavy duty remittance/withholding taxes, and a production with your much-coveted director suddenly costs a fortune.

On the other hand if you connect with a lower tier Indian director, he will not have the depth or expertise and will be unlikely to want to put in the extra hours to study local consumers and culture.

The other downside is the perception issue. At the risk of being politically incorrect, Indians have a very blinkered, stereotypical view of not just Pakistanis, but generally Muslims as well. Look at Veer Zara or even Bombay. Beautiful films. But where have you seen a girl from Mumbai or Lahore spouting chaste Urdu and doing adaabs? For some reason every Muslim girl is fair, doe-eyed, shy, dressed in flowing chiffons and speaking as if she has just walked out of a 1940s ‘Muslim social’. Yes, that is what the chaudhvin ka chaand genre was referred to.

The men are either urban thugs or moustache-less, bearded terrorists. Sarfaraz from PK was an exception. But do note that exception drew a significant amount of criticism across the border.

Of course stereotypes exist on both sides. Skim through Pakistani entertainment over the years. Hindu men are banyas and the women chaalu; Sikhs are loud and garrulous and not terribly smart; Christians are forever speaking in stilted gora style Urdu and don’t somehow belong. Unless one of them converts and tears of joy ensue with a miraculous transformation overnight.

Maybe it’s just easier for Subcontinentals to see each other as stereotypes; it saves us from the angst of broken barriers and the burden of acceptance.

On a less philosophical and more rational note, take a look at the Indian-produced ad films for the local market. Beautifully acted, but the depictions of Pakistanis are just so cringe-worthy. We relate to the stories, but do we really relate to the characters? I think not.

There’s no point in pining for the Tanishq-style films. No local client will ever approve the grainy look, the un-aspirational grittiness, etc. We want to see clean looking, glossy films with beautiful people.

The solution

If you can shoot abroad, by all means get Indian talent. There is no doubt that the talent across the border is better and more diverse. As stated earlier, we are spoiled for choice, mainly because the talent comprises trained, professional actors who are actively soliciting acting jobs. Not good-looking vacuous mannequins who really want to get on a ramp.

If the local directors are being too precious then explore the possibility of hiring a gora director. Having worked with quite a few over the years, I can assure you that they work hard, do their homework and are more than capable of telling a story well while keeping it relevant to the local audience. Or have an honest conversation with your favourite local directors and explain your reservations. Most of them are fairly reasonable and will listen to you.

Another unexplored resource is feature film directors. If television film directors can make feature films, then surely feature film directors can direct television commercials. Think of the value they will add to your concepts. The fresh perspective. Feature film directors direct television commercials all the time around the world, Ridley Scott and Michael Bay to name two.

Farjad Nabi, Nabeel Qureshi, Nadeem Beyg, Bilal Lashari and Afia Nathaniel are talented filmmakers, each with a distinct style and proven film success. If not a 30-second TV commercial, then why not a longer length digital video for them to get their feet wet?

On a final note, the reason why our films all look the same is not only because we as agencies and clients are hesitant to experiment, but because they are all shot by the same three cinematographers. Outsource your DoP. It will make a difference.

So, yes. Love thy neighbour. But on your terms. Not theirs.

T.N. Ahmed works for an advertising agency in Pakistan.