Think Ram Madhvani and most people would instantly recollect Sushmita Sen’s Aarya or Neerja — the sensitive biopic on the brave flight purser. But for ad folks, Madhvani is synonymous with the sparkling Happydent ‘tera dil roshan’ commercial that won a Cannes Lion. Among the memorable body of advertising work of Equinox, the film production company that Madhvani runs, are the zesty Airtel ads.

With the tautly suspenseful Aarya playing in your mind, meet Madhvani, expecting an intense, serious film-maker and instead you find a smiling personality full of light-hearted quips and breezy charm. The man behind powerful female protagonist oriented films is expectedly a strong supporter of gender equality — on a Goafest panel he gets claps from the audience for saying that the first thing he wants to change on film sets is to put in loos for women. Excerpts from an interview:


Between the first ad film you made and your most recent work — the Airtel Xtreme ad, what are the changes you see in the way commercials are made?

The first ad film that I made was for Baygon Spray. I took a photocopy of the cheque that I got as advance — it was for ₹5 lakh, a huge sum those days — and I still have it. It was made for Trikaya Grey and was called ‘No entry for pests’. It was a huge campaign. And my wife Amita, who is my co-producer now, was also involved.

The change between then and now is that we are more and more at the receiving end of viewer distraction. There is so much competition for viewers’ attention that we are really battling for eyeballs all the time. Apart from attention, we are also battling for opinion. Very rarely do we battle for feeling or mood.


But one does see a lot of heart tugging films full of feelings, especially during Diwali or Rakshabandhan...

We are in the business of feelings. However, over time, the duration required to evoke these feelings has reduced. Altering a viewer’s mood or feelings takes more time now.


So, do you find the 30-second format too short? After all, you have directed a long web series now.

I love the 30-second format. Now, because of cricket, you sometimes need to keep it even shorter as that’s all the time you get from the media channel. I respect that time. I don’t do Director’s Cuts or showreel cuts. If I’m given 30 seconds, I ensure that I don’t waste any of it.

This is not out of any indulgence or vanity. I am doing it for a reason — to sell the product. I am not making the film for myself. My bigger responsibility is that I get return purchase for the ad. That ad, which is selling something, is also an ad for me and my work.


But you must be working to a script written by an ad agency. How much leeway do you get as a filmmaker?

It is always a discussion and a choice. It’s up to you whether you want to make it or not. Eventually it builds into a relationship. With Airtel, it has been a long relationship. There is an understanding of the brand voice. Airtel is one of the few brands that has consistently maintained a distinctive look and feel in all its ad films, which is very rare. It is thanks to Gopal (Vittal), Agnello (Dias of Taproot) and Pallavi (Chakravarti of Fundamental) now.


Using a celebrity in ads, your thoughts on that? There seems to be a feeling that it’s a waste of money.

I have done many ads with celebrities. I have done ads with Shahrukh. We have to give clients some credit. They won’t spend that kind of money on celebrities if it won’t work. Obviously it is working.


In cricket we are seeing experiments with vertical video format. What about advertising?

I love vertical formats. We are now in the transition phase, shooting twice in both formats. As the composition changes, the set also changes. Eventually, when you are composing for the vertical, you have to keep in mind how does the landscape of the human face change? That’s what hopefully is not changing. I am looking forward to the day when we have vertical television sets. This current format of television exists because it followed the aspect ratio of cinema. But aspect ratios have now changed and television has not kept up. It’s time we start manufacturing vertical sets.


Are you excited about AI?

I am. But you must make sure that you are using AI and the AI is not using you. It’s a great visualisation, brainstorming tool. I am working on some simulated stuff with AI. We have not broadcasted anything yet. We are using AI for a lot of the pitch work, storyboarding and scratch films. It is very liberating.


Any messages you want to give the ad community.

I am too young to be giving messages! Please give me messages (laughs). Jokes apart, it’s just struggle and experience. Do better work and good work. Also stay relevant.


How do you personally stay relevant?

Out of fear of work stopping! (laughs). I do a lot of reading. Currently I am reading a book on the civil war in America and what led to the abolishing of slavery. I read 4-5 books at a time. I read a lot of crime.

I recently read a book by Ramchandra Guha. A book called Cooking of Books. It’s a literary memoir between him and his editor Rukun Advani. It’s worth reading.