Advait Chandan is lanky, but it was difficult to imagine him as Fido - the lovable mascot of the soft drink Lehar 7 UP. Not just for his unruly beard; his sharp nose is too sharp to be flattened. But he insisted that adman Prahlad Kakkar made him "wear a leotard three times smaller his size on the sets of the commercial to get a feel of the character". In the presence of Mallika Sherawat, who played the seductress, it was truly embarrassing.
Chandan learnt to take it in his stride. "It was part of growing up," he said, while charting the course of his growth in the last three years. A non-conformist, and bitten by the film bug while in college, he quit studies to assist Kakkar. Finally, he has found time to do his graduation in Arts through distance education.
At 22, he has quite a lot on his resume. He has worked as an assistant director in both ad and feature films, doing a lot of co-ordination; as assistant production manager, he provided logistical support in Aamir Khan's maiden film Taare Zameen Par; he was the third assistant director in Reema Kagti's film Honeymoon Travels, recruiting the secondary cast, taking care of the background action, helping the main actors with their lines and basically doing all the odd jobs; he was assistant director to Dutch director Diederick Vanrooijen for a Dutch film based on Bollywood; and now, he is the first assistant director to an Austrian ad filmmaker Marco Kalantari. In between, he has been part of at least a score of commercials, assisting big names like Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, Sujit Sarkar and Rajesh Sathi.
He earns between Rs. 40,000 and Rs. 60,000 a month for his exertions. "I eventually want to direct my own films," said Advait. "I'm gaining expertise through these projects."
It all began with Kakkar and his Genesis Films. "I was his 17th slave, and every time I goofed up, Kakkar would threaten to sell me to his Sheikh friend in Dubai," Chandan said, laughing, now that he had escaped the "inevitable". "Even though I worked for a pittance, it was a great learning experience."
A smooth-talker, who shamelessly "promotes himself," Advait's first break in films came with Honeymoon. "During shooting at Goa, I was almost sacked - apparently Kagti (the director) found my presence nerve-wracking," Advait said. But the producer Zoya Akhtar took pity on me. Imagine, at that point, I was spending more on telephone bills than what I was earning, and didn't even have money to come back to money [???]," he said. His father, a software consultant, who had been his chief patron for quite some time, was always supportive.
The turning point, however, was Taare… "It was hectic, but fun. Just before my 20th birthday, I had worked 36 hours at a stretch and conked out," he said. The rewards were manifold. Apart from gaining hands-on experience, he fell in love with Priyanjali Lahiri, who was the costume stylist for the film. "It started with friendship and soon we began dating," said a proud Advait.
He is also proud of his brief association with Farhan Akhtar when he worked with him on a 20-minute AIDS awareness film called Positive. "I had wanted to work with Akhtar, and Positive helped me gain insights into his working style. Unlike Kakkar, who doesn't believe in scripts and leaves virtually everything to spontaneity, Akhtar is extremely methodical and organised. Everything is worked out in detail much before the shoot takes place. Ditto with Aamir, who never looses his cool on the sets."
Advait suddenly showed signs of restlessness. He had to rush to the airport. The Dutch crew had already arrived, and very soon they will start shooting at various places in the city. "Since they are new in Mumbai and don't know Hindi, I'll have to play the extra role of a translator apart from the usual responsibilities," he said.
"It's a seven-week project for which I will be paid Rs 15,000 a week. I will be responsible for everything starting from location scouting, getting government permission to shoot at the spots, working on the actor's lines to give a flavour of Bollywood romance, getting raw filmstock if required…you name it," he rattled off almost breathlessly. And, in no time he disappeared.