How the Airtel 4G girl came to win over trolls by laughing at herself

  • Suveen Sinha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 09, 2016 14:51 IST
I thought the Airtel 4G ad would be a one-off, but didn’t know it would go this massive. It was overwhelming to begin with, and is overwhelming still. Young people point to me and go ‘ha ha ha’, says the face of the brand, Sasha Chhetri. (HT Photo)

How do you feel?

You really can’t help asking Sasha Chhetri this most hackneyed of questions.

A year ago she was working with a non-profit organisation in child care, having given up on a copywriting career in advertising, and was aspiring to cut a music album. “Copywriting was stressful. I understood what it took to come up with advertising that everyone loves, or hates. I also figured the world is fake, and wanted to do something real,” she says.

She had cut her waist-length hair to a short crop on a whim, and had to be dragged by a friend to an audition for Airtel 4G commercials. She was selected, because Agnello Dias, who heads Taproot India, Airtel’s adverting agency, liked her “chemistry with the camera”.

Since then, the Dehradun girl has occupied more time on TV than any celebrity. She has made brief appearances in the movie ‘Katti Batti’, starring Kangana Ranaut, and in an Amazon ad. But the Airtel ad was her breakthrough: she has become the face of 4G.

A warm, attractive face, say many. An annoying one, say some, especially on social media. To the annoyed, the new series of ads should come as a fitting response. Chhetri’s character dares to laugh at herself, and an actor playing her friend says the public needed a break from her.

Indian brands do not laugh at themselves. Imagine Lalita Ji pausing in the middle of tapping on her temple and wondering why she was being so didactic. Or the Liril girl, frolicking in water, saying it was time she stopped bathing in the open.

But Airtel allowed the face of its brand to say: “Thoda over ho gaya”, that the ad campaign was a bit too much, and “paka diya sabko”, that everyone was fed up of her. “Brands do not take a light-hearted view of themselves,” says Taproot’s Dias. “Thankfully, the team saw the humour in it and was happy to go along.”

Watch | Sasha Chhetri in the Airtel 4G ad

In short, it has been one hell of a ride for the young Sasha Chhetri, her age not far from 20. It’s a journey befitting someone who chose Riksha Rani as her music moniker, and Twitter and Instagram identity. “It is symbolic of the life I have lived. I have always been on the move, done a lot of travel in rikshaws. Right now I’m in my 10th house in Mumbai. The moniker also stands for ‘masses over the classes’,” says Chhetri.

So how is it to mock herself on screen?

“No issue with mocking myself. I find it amusing that some people call me annoying. It is understandable, because they may be getting interrupted in something they are doing and do not want to know about a product. We are too connected these days, attention spans are short,” says Chhetri.

Apart from her maturity in dealing with feedback, what helps is that the new series of commercials take the story forward. They build on the story of the first series of ads, and talk about a new thing. Explains Dias: “The first series was meant to establish the speed of the service, followed by the possibilities it allowed. That done, we wanted to highlight its reach and penetration. In that we thought we will bring in freshness by taking a tongue-in-cheek look at ourselves.”

Dias cannot think of any other advertisement anywhere that may have served as Taproot’s model. However, an individual does come to mind. “An individual who did something similar was Alia Bhatt in her short film, ‘Genius of the Year’, in which she laughed at herself. It was witty and brave.”

Bhatt established herself as the cool girl by laughing at her famous gaffe on ‘Koffee with Karan’. But she was already famous. Chhetri did not even know how big the Airtel campaign was going to be when she signed up for it. “I thought it would be a one-off, didn’t know it would go this massive. It was overwhelming to begin with, and is overwhelming still. Young people point to me and go ‘ha ha ha’.”

So how does she really feel?

“It’s a fun ride, a blessing.”

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