Chief Creative director of Lowe Lintas R Balki has often taken on Abhinay Deo to direct ad films for his agency. Their association has been long and fruitful, resulting in some iconic commercials. A few years ago, Balki had a story idea and made a feature film. He followed Cheeni Kum with the award-winning Paa.
Three years ago, with more than 450 ad films and several awards under his belt, Deo leapt into feature film direction with two diametrically opposite scripts – the comic Delhi Belly and a thriller, Game (releasing April 1). When we meet, at Masala Bay in Taj Lands End hotel, Bandra, Mumbai, you can tell that Deo and Balki are just waiting to finish this interview to get back to catching up and exchanging notes on the worlds of advertising and Bollywood.
You’ve known each other for a long time...
Balki: Yes, he has done some of our best work. I don’t think advertising has missed a person more than it has missed him.
Abhinay: One of the most memorable and best films I made is the ‘Surf Excel Daag Achche Hain’ film with the two kids and the puddle. And that was with Balki.
What do you think of each other’s work?
Balki: He is one of the most complete filmmakers. Not just in his execution, but he is a storyteller with a lot of finesse. I have not seen many people extract the kind of performances he has. His training as an architect shows in his films. For an ad filmmaker, it’s most important not to lose sight of the purpose of that particular ad and Abhinay never gets carried away. He always understands how to tell the story.
Abhinay: When I started doing ads for Balki, I felt that our films always ended up being very different from what I had done before and that is not saying something about me as much as about the creative head behind it. He is incredibly clear and so unconventional in the way he approaches every brief to every brand. It’s a filmmaker’s dream to have a creative partner like that. As a filmmaker, the thumb rule is you should know what you should not mess with in a script. I was floored by Cheeni Kum and the incredible maturity with which he had written it, leave aside directed it.
How did filmmaking happen?
Balki: I almost went to film school, ended up in advertising and then forgot about filmmaking for about 17 years thanks to advertising.
Abhinay: I trained as an architect but in a way I am following what my parents (Ramesh and Seema Deo) have done, though advertising was not something they dreamt of doing. In fact, when I was joining advertising, the first thing my father said was, ‘are you sure, because they are all drug addicts in advertising’. And I was like, I am sure this is what I want to do and it doesn’t look like there are drug addicts around! I think I always wanted to tell stories whether in 60 seconds, 60 minutes or two hours. In the last three years I have not made a single ad film and I am missing it like hell.
Have you two compared notes on working with Abhishek Bachchan?
Abhinay: No, because we are meeting after almost two years.
Balki: Anyway, you don’t need to because Abhishek compares notes for you. He does the work for all of us. He takes notes, compares notes, does everything.
Abhinay, there has been talk about differences of opinion between you and Aamir Khan, producer of Delhi Belly. How do you handle the media?
Abhinay: I have not been handling it. As a process, filmmaking is so incredibly consuming. All the glamour and all is bullshit. You are seriously working for 18 hours a day. And when you are doing an intense script, your mind cannot, and does not, stop. As a director you are thinking of the next day and the graph. There is no time and I prefer it like that. Sure, there is curiosity and speculation. Damn good, they are doing it. But I am making my films. That’s how I want to go on with life.
Balki: Filmmaking is labour. It is nothing like the outside world thinks it is.
Balki directed scripts he wrote. Abhinay has directed scripts given to him. How difference was each of your experiences?
Abhinay: Luckily the two scripts that I shot back-to-back were so incredibly diverse that I had a ball making them. If they had been similar, I would not have been able to pull through three years of labour because how can you keep doing the same thing for so long? In contrast, you shoot approximately two ad films in a month.
Balki: That is the biggest challenge in doing a film – resilience. An ad film gets over in three or four months. With a feature film you have to remember what turned you on before and sustain your interest right through the year or more. You have to remember what got you excited in the first place, because it is hard to stay excited for such a long time. I approach a film the same way as an audience. The way I watch films is the way I make them. I don’t pretend to be a filmmaker. I just make a film because there is some story I want to tell. My trip is in the telling of the story. Even if you are not trained, you should be a good viewer of films and have common sense and aesthetic sense.
You finished shooting Delhi Belly almost two years ago, Abhinay. Do you still remember what got you excited?
Abhinay: I was blessed to have worked on a script and got it to a point where I got so kicked about it that it kept the interest going. It was exciting enough for long enough. I finished shooting Delhi Belly almost two years back, then edited to first cut, then stopped and got onto Game. That first process was fabulous because I was on a trip of Delhi Belly. But then it took about six weeks for me to get out of that and go into a dark space of a twisted whodunit like Game.
Did you ever seek advice from Balki when getting into features?
Abhinay: On yes. I have spoken to him only maybe thrice in the last three years, but he has always been liberal with good advice and a pat on the shoulder. He had already done two incredible films when I was getting into it, and every time we spoke he always said, go and have fun. It is the most incredible advice because everyone says aisa kar, waisa kar, but no one says have fun, it will all fall into place.
Balki: It is the only way to live. You are going to go through the shit; you may as well treat the shit as fun.
What next for you?
Balki: My wife is directing a film with Sridevi in it which I am producing. I am thinking about another project to direct but I need to have a story first. Abhinay trips on filmmaking but I need something really, really worth telling to go through that labour because that one year is killing. My wife tells me that she keeps away from me for three months after I finish a film because it takes me that long to get back to normal.
Abhinay: After two films back to back, I don’t think I can make another movie for some time. I need to make an ad film next.
Balki: I know what he is going to do next, he doesn’t.
Does advertising and association with stars make it easier to make films?
Balki: I didn’t know Amitabh Bachchan before Cheeni Kum. But yes, you know how to get access and how to get some number to be able to approach stars. If you have an idea, they are willing to listen and to assess if it is viable. They need to have faith in the idea and your body of work. If you have a story, then there is a way. But your story has to be good enough to stop someone in their tracks. Filmmaking is a director’s medium, but fundamentally it is a writer’s medium. You cannot zap people with just special effects; you need writing of substance and it needs to be written to be shot. But we pay so little to writers. There are a lot of fantastic writers but we pay them abysmally. We celebrated Salim-Javed and then stopped celebrating writers after that.
Abhinay: If your work is good and if they have faith in you then everything sorts itself out. Like Abhishek Bachchan had. I had 14 years of ad film experience but no feature film experience. When we met for the first time Abhishek had looked up my films and learnt everything about me. I too had done my homework and the minute we started talking about the film and what I was going to do with the script, it worked.
Balki: Anyway, how do we have access to the stars? It’s after years of work. It’s not like in my first year I had access to Amitabh Bachchan. I have spent 20 years in the ad business. So has Abhinay. So now we can get access and make the movies. If you have done your work, why shouldn’t you have the right?
Abhinay Deo: Fire in his belly
Abhinay Deo trained as an architect but followed his passion for storytelling by joining advertising in 1993. With over 100 ad films to his credit, he joined his father Ramesh Deo’s company in 2000 and founded the Ad Film division at RDP. Since then, RDP has made over 450 films and won numerous awards for ad films for Nike (cricket), Cadbury (girl in stadium), Pepsi and Tata Safari Dicor. The first feature film he directed – Delhi Belly – for Aamir Khan Productions, is slated to release later this year. The second feature he has directed, Game, releases first, on April 1.
Cheeni kum, passion zyada
R Balki, chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas, had always wanted to make movies. When his interview with the Madras Film Institute did not go to plan, he had a tryst with computer studies before finding his calling in advertising. Campaigns for clients such as Surf Excel, Idea, Tanishq and Tata Tea have been led by him. After two decades of experience in advertising, he revisited his teenage dream and wrote and directed his first feature film Cheeni Kum in 2007, following it up with Paa in 2009. Next he is producing his wife Gauri’s film starring Sridevi.
From HT Brunch, March 13
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