Interview: Creators of the controversial Tanishq ad
The team that worked on the controversial ad film featuring a Hindu woman and her Muslim mother-in-law that caused an uproar last week talks about creative freedom, advertising, censorship and politicsUpdated: Oct 21, 2020, 16:00 IST
It’s not every day that an ad film becomes a national controversy. The team of three writers from the ad agency What’s Your Problem(WYP) responsible for the Tanishq ad – Palash Shrotriya, who wrote it, Prakhar Deogirikar who supervised it, and Amit Akali who created it for the brand – speak about being at the centre of the storm.
What does it feel like to be called a “Creative Terrorist”?
Amit: The intention was just to do work that’s correct for a brand. And definitely not terrorise anybody.
Palash: It amuses me. I don’t understand the term. Like I don’t understand Urban Naxal or Tukde-Tukde Gang or Love Jihad; a few of them are fantastic oxymorons at best. What I do understand is the hateful forces in this country have become really ingenious and strategic. They have permeated all boundaries and blended in our lives. The average Joe has no way of knowing that he’s being manipulated day in and day out by a whole new vocabulary, imagery and technology. Terms like these are a product of that sinister machinery.
Prakhar: Honestly, I am as proud of it as I am confused. Does it mean a terrorist who is creative? Or a creative who has terrorist tendencies? Either way, it’s the first time I’ve heard it and I think I love it!
Prakhar, what do you think this term “Creative Terrorist” is about?
Prakhar: The first I saw of this term was in Kangana Ranaut’s tweet against the Tanishq ad that we created. I guess she chooses her words more carefully than her movies. On the surface, it sounds like such a meek term - putting together two things that don’t usually go together. Like a pineapple and a pen. Or an Apple and a pen. But put them side by side, and suddenly, you have a catchy viral on your hands.
I feel this term comes from far sharper minds, and pens, than a struggling movie star. These are carefully crafted words, its meaning meticulously thought through, and its impact, very methodically calculated. As to who’s got the resources, intent and need to think of such stuff, your guess is as good as mine.
Long have people who choose to think freely been called names. This is just another manifestation of the same oppressive, gaslighting process.
I have a feeling this phrase is here to stay. It’ll be used more and more as the nation progresses in the direction it seems to be taking. Trump has ‘fake news’. India will have ‘Creative Terrorists’.
Amit, where do you rate your Twitter experience in the last week in terms of the challenges you’ve faced in your 20 year career as an advertising writer?
Amit: I admit I run an agency that’s fantastic at social digital marketing but I am not really on Twitter. So I have barely checked it. The reactions have reached me on FB. People have gone out of their way to send love, even beyond social media. I’ve never been shown so much support in my 20+ year career. Everybody from the industry has called or messaged. People have supported in public and behind the scenes. Industry bodies like the Ad Club have come out in public support for a brand, probably for the first time. I have ignored the challenges and only looked at the positivity and love.
In the making of this ad film, was it a conscious call to talk about a supposedly “sensitive” subject?
Prakhar: When we were thinking of this ad film, the only thing we wanted to do was to celebrate one of the many lovely relationships that are all around us. It was to showcase how we all have the power to love and come together for one another. Because that is the very essence of ‘Ekatvam’, our campaign for Tanishq this year.
Amit: It was a conscious call to talk about topics from our culture. It was a conscious call to contextualise the work in what’s happening around us. In fact, this isn’t even a sensitive subject for me. I am a Hindu Sikh married to a Parsi. This is my everyday reality.
Palash, everyone’s debating the social message of the ad you wrote. As a young writer what’s the message society has given you with its response?
Palash: It wasn’t a message; it was a warning; that they are here to control our lives, aspirations and most importantly, imagination because if it is curbed at the thought level itself, it won’t be written or filmed. Interestingly, it wasn’t done by an authority. None of it transpired at a police station, or a court of law. In the absence of a tangible enemy, whom do you fight?
You fight yourself. You arrest your ideas. You self-censor. Caution is hardly good advice when it comes to creativity. But, I guess, that’s the world we have become.
Have you always been vocal about politics?
Palash: Yes, but it was seldom as necessary. That we will all have to take political stances every day is something I didn’t imagine or want. It’s only a sign of social unrest and instability. I wish we debated food, cinema, literature and music as fervently as we debate politics. I guess the times won’t allow us that for a long while to come. Being apolitical was never a choice in this country. But now being the exact opposite is a desperate need.
Prakhar: Not really. I think politics, like religion, is personal. Funnily, in the last fortnight, Twitterati has been mixing them both and presuming it for us!
Going forward, do you think more ad films will have a political stance? Can and should advertising be used as a tool to advocate political stances?
Palash: Like a mailman delivers mail, the job of an adman is to answer a brief correctly and creatively; doesn’t matter if it involves a political stance. Fun begins when that stance is at loggerheads with your own ideology. Now, you can either argue like a lawyer that defending the worst criminal is your prerogative (and you won’t be wrong), or still have some conscience. The fact remains that the relationship between an adman, and a client brief is a pure one.
Prakhar: I don’t think ads should be loaded with your personal political opinions. That’s for news channel anchors to do. Advertising is a part of marketing and it should remain faithful to the purpose it has to serve. But like they say, the media reflects society. Or that society reflects the media. (Depends on your viewpoint) That’s why advertising can never truly be separate from the politics that surrounds us. Advertising writers are also human beings. Some of them even thinking ones. Subliminal political stances are bound to show up in their work.
Amit: This is not a political stance. I do not take political stances in my work. And I am against advertising taking a political stance. It should only take cultural stances. This was a cultural stance. And a brand stance. And that’s the kind of work we’re famous for – work that comes from culture and from what the brand stands for. Ekatvam is a brand stance – that the only way we as a nation will come out of this crisis, is ‘together’. This is an unique problem that can’t be solved as individuals. For example, if you wear a mask and I don’t, if you maintain social distance and I don’t, as a nation we will never get out of the Corona situation. We were not trying to take political stances at all. I firmly believe that’s not the job of advertising.
When you’re not exhibiting “creative terrorism”, how do you spend your time?
Palash: When I’m not indulging in it myself, I read, watch and listen to other creative terrorists. And yes, I daydream a lot.
Amit: Passing time is important in the busy-ness that work from home brings. I spend all the time I can with my family.
Prakhar: Other than dreaming of new ways of being creative terrorist, I do enjoy gaming on my PS. Somehow, it gives me a sense of calmness. Quite therapeutic to be able to be shoot people down who are throwing bombs at you! I also enjoy watching the English Premier League over the weekends and Japanese anime over the week.
Amit, where do you go from here as the captain of the ship? Would you still let yourself and your people and brands express themselves as freely?
Amit: Advertising is not about self-expression. It’s about creating the right expression for the brand. And yes, that is our responsibility to the brand – creating the expression that is correct for it. If I want to express myself, I will do it in other ways. In this case too, we were not trying to express ourselves. But just bring alive the thought behind the product and do justice to it.
Today, a bunch of people, either left or right, can decide to ruin work, ideas, in some cases, lives in a few tweets. What do you think is the impact of this social media influencer-led culture on free-thinking individuals?
Palash: It’s quite an intriguing conundrum, honestly. Every free-thinking individual wants at least a few people on their side, who buy into their set of beliefs. Support them, champion them. But it doesn’t take very long for that coterie to become a crowd and start following the tendencies of a group. By nature, a group is about consensus. By nature, a free-thinking individual is about challenging the consensus.
What social media culture also fails to acknowledge is the ambiguities within an individual and the messiness of our lives.
Prakhar: If we back democracy, we also back people to be able to have the freedom to express and opine. Even if their voices don’t seem to be coming from their own mouths.
If we decide who can speak or who should speak, and what they should say, we are actually as guilty of curbing free speech as the people we criticise. Social Media etiquette should be a subject in schools. We all should be taught how to behave online as we need to in public. E=mc2 wasn’t the problem. Using it to create the atom bomb was.
Boycotting brands, films, art and people seems to be the new form of revolution. What do you feel about that?
Prakhar: If people want to boycott brands or films, it’s their prerogative. They are free to do as they want. It’s their money and mindspace we ask for after all. But more than a revolution, it’s an exposé of our society’s psyche. If you are close minded and cannot take another person’s view of the world, cool. If you are a free-thinker and want to shun the watching of a movie that promotes sexism, cool. Just be civil about it. Opine and not threaten. Express and not vandalize.
Amit: I think social media is a new form of revolution. And people are using it in their own way.
Palash: I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. Art and advertising have always been soft targets. Just that the mediums of protest have changed. Now you get unprecedented reach and visibility for the piece boycotted. From Satanic Verses to Bandit Queen to Fire to Water to now, the Tanishq ad, such controversies have always made the piece go truly global. Hope the protestors realise this by now.
Oscar Wilde said, “There’s only one thing in life worse than being talked about. And that is not being talked about.” I guess, in the end, you’ll trudge on, Palash, won’t you?
Palash: Yes. But what’s the worst is all of it keeps you away from your work, the thing you love the most. This background noise affects your mental health and your relationship with the paper. Armed with the attention span of a housefly, social media will keep deriving its kicks from one topic today, another tomorrow. Hence, these things shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even Oscar Wilde would reconsider his statement, were he born in the times of Twitter.
What’s the one thing you’d like to tell the country at the moment?
Amit: Thanks for all the love.
Prakhar: Grow up and goodbye.
Palash: We were just doing our job. Please, let us do it. And go back to yours, if you have one, of course.
Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.