Ad man Prahlad Kakar is a self-confessed mad man, so much so that it’s the title of his recently released autobiography published by Harper Collins. The back cover is typically, scandalously, Prahlad: he’s in the buff, with nothing but a hat (he’s also a big time hat collector) covering his unmentionables. It’s on a beach, and a dog is positioned right behind him, between his legs. People ask me if the dog was positioned there or if it’s a dummy dog, but it just happened to be there at the moment and the photographer clicked, says Kakar, chuckling, in an over hour-long Zoom interview on his book. Spontaneous moments like these are what makes for great ad films, he emphasises.
Kakar, who has made many memorable ad films, is a man of many parts: he has dabbled in restaurants and cigar making and even has a scuba diving school in Lakshadweep. But, all his interests were supported by his work in ad films, he says emphatically. His detailed book has lots of wacky and bizarre anecdotes from incidents that he and his team experienced during their film-making. Excerpts from the interview:
You have worked with several top brands — from Pepsi and Britannia to Jenson & Nicholson to Maggi. Which would you say were your most memorable and satisfying ad films?
It was satisfying to work with the Pepsi team — with Vibha Rishi (then marketing head) and her team. We were joint stakeholders and understood the brand very well. Pepsi was number two to Coke, so it cocked a snook at Coke while Coke studiously ignored them. The DNA of the brand was young, irreverent, anti-establishment and slightly rebellious with its ‘nothing official about it’ campaign. That echoed the whole DNA of the brand. In a country like ours there are more unofficial people than official. Inadvertently, we managed to hit a real sweet spot; as far as audiences were concerned, it appealed to the young and aspiring, and worked extremely well for the brand.
In the book you say making the Pepsi ad was a game-changer for your production company, Genesis?
Yes! Especially the one with Aishwarya and Aamir. So, we had a dilemma, we debated if we should do it (The ad was to be a copy of an international TVC featuring Michael J Fox). If we did it well, they will say copy cats and if we did it badly, they will say what a bunch of ***holes, they couldn’t even copy it properly. So, it wasn’t a win-win situation. It was a challenge to replicate a very American thought, but then we realised that Mumbai is much closer to NY than Delhi — in terms of attitude and style leadership. If it managed to hit the sweet spot in Mumbai, the rest of the country would take to it. We adapted the story line and Indianised it in our own way; the casting was to be very important.
And, you say you stood your ground to cast Aamir Khan over SRK in the TVC?
Yes, Aamir had just come out of the huge success of QSQT; he was riding high and a symbol of youth at that time. So, we hit a sweet spot and we took Bombay and the rest of the country by storm. And, Aishwarya Rai’s four seconds in the ad and her rise to fame and stardom was almost instantaneous. I got over 3,000 calls asking me, who is Sanju? She became an overnight sensation.
In my book you will find that some of the most successful campaigns just happened. My belief is spontaneity is the real reason for virality. You can’t plan for your ad to be viral, you have to have something in it, where you grab the moment at the moment and the campaign becomes history. Take the ‘nothing official about it’ line; it came from Anuja Chauhan of JWT, who was a trainee then, a junior member of the team. When she said, why are we so stricken by the fact that Pepsi is not an official sponsor (of the cricket World Cup, for which Coke was the official sponsor) everybody was stumped. But it was a piece of pure genius. Vibha intuitively put a finger on the pulse and said that the line has legs.
You are an inadvertent ad filmmaker, right?
I wanted to make feature films and that’s why I went to work with Shyam Benegal. I always thought — just like those outside the industry — that I could make better films than what we saw. So, I joined Shyam babu and worked on ad films with him and then went on to make a full-blown feature film, Ankur. (Ankur was Shyam Benegal’s first feature film and also the debut movie for Anant Nag and Shabana Azmi; the movie won three national film awards) And, the experience really humbled me. I couldn’t even imagine the effort it takes to make a full-length feature film; translating the excitement of a script on paper to get it on screen takes so much effort. A lot of films are made which never match the book. Take the Harry Potter movies. When I read the book, it was so visual and when I saw the film, I saw that the director had got it bang on; he had got the visual essence of the book perfectly.
You called yourself a slave to Shyam Benegal in your book. So, it was a hard grind working with him?
It was a great learning as what Shyam babu said was film-making is multi-faceted; if you restrict yourself and your role, then you are not learning. Today film-making is so clearly defined in terms of boundaries — as assistant directors, production managers et al that people say this is not my job! Shyam Benegal’s teaching method was that everything about film-making is your job, whether there’s pigeon shit on the set to if some earring has gone missing or the lunch hasn’t come on time or the leading lady has thrown a tantrum; everything is your job. The moment you say that it’s not your job you would get punished even more. Everything that happens on a set is your job, he would say.
How would you say the craft of advertising has changed?
We’ve really lost our way in terms of tech vs content, because tech has become so easy and so spectacular, there is no challenge as far as what you can do with visual content. Advertising has become so similar now as the tech has become freely available to all. There are one or two directors who can still grab you by the scruff of your neck in terms of content and story telling. If tech is used as a tool, then it becomes a part of your craft; it helps you tell your story but if it becomes overwhelming, then it becomes boring. That’s what advertising is going through.
Have you also as a filmmaker transitioned to using new tech?
I’m a dinosaur. Tech scares the daylights out of me. But I have enough young people around me and I can tell them what I need and this is how I want tech to be used to help my storytelling and they do it. It amazes me how easy things have become, some times at the press of a button. You can shoot two people in two different locations and make it look like they are talking to each other. In earlier times, we had to go to great lengths to get two people together. Today, you can shoot a film star in a different location and shoot the rest of the commercial around him. Tech should be used in a manner that makes the storytelling better and the tech is invisible; if the tech takes over the storytelling, then you’re dead.
Are you going to make your own feature film?
Well, I’ve written a script, but my fear of getting trapped in the film business is that everything has become very professional, except the finance. They give you the finance in dribs and drabs while the artist has written into their contract that if they don’t get their tranches in time they will not turn up for the shoot. Now, if they have given you a block of dates, they have allocated the next block of dates to some one else. So if the shoot is delayed for a week because of payments, then you lose a lot of time. I can’t keep chasing stars for their dates or getting them their money on time.
You’ve had many avatars, scuba diving school to restaurant owner...Which is the real Prahlad Kakar?
(Laughs heartily) If you are truly in love with what you do, then it resonates very well with people who have taken to professions against parental and friends’ advise and made a decent living. There were a lot of lifestyle and creative decisions I had to make, but film-making was at the heart of it all. It helped me start and subsidise my diving school till it became profitable. It helped me start all my hobbies, making wine, making cigars, starting restaurants — I did have a blast. We never took outside money, there was no pressure on us to return money, whatever we generated we invested in the different ventures.