Was: Freelance producer
Now: Center Shock guy
‘People like me because they can relate to me. They’re tired of seeing chikna faces’
Six years after the ad went on air, Varun Vohra is still recognised as that ‘Center Shock guy’. He’s not happy about all the attention. “People try to figure out where they’ve seen me. It makes me so uncomfortable, I feel like a caged animal,” says the 34-year-old freelance producer. Acting is not something that comes naturally to him. “Facing the camera is a very unnerving experience. I’m much happier behind it,” says Vohra.
So why has he been cast in six advertisements? “Varun and I used to work together and he has such a sweet, vulnerable face. That’s the look I wanted for the Center Shock guy. He had to look like he accepted what had happened to his hair in the end,” says adman Prasoon Pandey, who insisted that Vohra starred in the ad despite a “disastrous screen test”. It was this same vulnerability that got him the Close-Up advertisement, in which he plays a loser to model Perizaad Kolah’s sexy college girl.
To make Vohra’s first time in front of the camera easier, Pandey even shot with the camera hidden behind a one-way mirror. “The trick in casting non-actors is to cast them in roles in which they pretty much have to play themselves,” says Pandey.
Despite Vohra’s reluctant acceptance of his celebrity status, the offers are coming thick and fast — he recently acted in a promo for MTV’s ISuperstar show. “Once, after watching screen tests that he didn’t like, a client just turned to me and said, ‘Will you do it?’ It’s hard to say no in situations like that,” he sighs.
Watching him talk animatedly in high-pitched tones, it’s easy to see why his face has become so popular — it’s endearing and boyish; like the quiet social misfit in the corner, or the ordinary guy who got put down by the popular girl in high school. “I just think people like me because they can relate to me. They’re tired of seeing chikna faces,” he says plainly.
Was: Photocopying machine operator
Now: Dr Bhatawdekar of Orbit White fame
‘My family wants me to just get a regular job, but I want to stand out from everyone else’
Up until 2004, Vikas Sakhale’s CV read something like this:
Father: Taxi driver
Educational: Third Year
Qualifications: B.Com Fail
Work Experience: Former newspaper delivery boy. Currently working as a Xerox machine operator at Mumbai’s Bhatia hospital.
Of course, Sakhale had little need to even create a resume; he’d resigned himself to the life of a drifter — an odd job here, another one there, and a little bit of Marathi street theatre on the side.
But life had other plans for him. In 2004, a friend gave him the number of a advertising casting agent. He got in touch and was asked to report for a screen test. A few days later, he was told he had been selected, and six months after that, he was the face of Orbit white chewing gum. It’s been four years since then, and Sakhale, now 32, is still playing the bumbling Dr Bhatawdekar.
“Vikas’ screen test was the worst one of the lot, and the clients hated him — they thought he looked small and unimpressive. But I was convinced he was right for the job,” says Pushpendra Mishra of Flying Saucer films. “Rather than pick someone whose English was perfect and then teach him to speak bad English, we just went with someone who was a natural,” he explains.
In the month that followed the premiere of the very first Bhatawdekar ad, the chewing gum’s sales went up by an astronomical 300 per cent.
Stripped of all his Bhatawdekar-isms, Sakhale is an unassuming, slightly nervous chap, all darting eyes and halting speech. His newfound fame, he says, makes him alternatively anxious and exhilarated. “Once, on the train a little boy pointed to me and shouted to his mother, ‘Dekho, dekho bhains ka doctor’. I was so embarrassed I got off at the next station,” he says, flashing his Orbit White smile.
Was: Retired accountant
Now: Scientist of Bingo Mad Angles’ ads
‘It was odd to dance with a model twice my height’
Arvind Parab walks into our interview at a coffee shop looking every inch the star — huge aviator glasses hide his face, and he strides in with a confident gait. But once the sunglasses go off, he seems to melt into the crowd; with his tufts of curly white hair and tiny frame, he looks more like my neighbour than an advertising phenomenon.
A long conversation later, I realise that the 69-year-old Parab could just as easily be my neighbourhood uncle —he never planned for fame, and his career trajectory is more middle-class Mumbai than wannabe filmstar. “I grew up in Dadar, and worked at the Great Eastern Shipping company as an accountant for more than 30 years,” he says.
It was only after he retired at 56 that Parab turned his attention to his lifelong passion — acting. Fame first came in the form of MTV’s ‘one-tight-slap’ series (remember the cranky liftman?), where he played an assistant to a director who gets slapped. He was in the spotlight once again with Bingo’s Mad Angle ads. “We were looking for a quirky face. When you put ordinary people in extraordinary situations, it works,” says Rajesh Krishnan of Soda films.
Parab’s comical scientist became such a hit that Bingo soon came out with another ad — this time with the scientist insisting that the chips are a fool-proof test for pregnancy. At the end of the first advertisement, Parab can be seen dancing with a lissome Hungarian model, a feat, he says, that caused him a considerable amount of embarrassment. “We had never scripted that part. But it was odd for me, a 69-year-old grandfather, to put my arm around the waist of a model who is twice my height,” he laughs.