Telling a Charm­ing Story

Meet the ad­man who di­rected Bad­hai Ho – the first fea­ture film from an ad-fo­cused pro­duc­tion house to breach the `100 crore mark.

The Brand Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - By Sh­weta Mulki

When asked to re­call mo­ments in his life and ca­reer – say, how he sur­prised his mother back home in Delhi af­ter a long work sched­ule in Mum­bai, how he pre­tended to tie his shoelaces when touch­ing the ground af­ter land­ing in Mum­bai on his first flight ever, or when he saw film­maker Pradeep Sarkar us­ing a hair strand to get a sticker off the ground for a shot – Amit Sharma vis­its his mem­o­ries frame by frame, nar­rat­ing each in­stance like a script.

“Acute ob­ser­va­tion is a trait that com­pen­sates for the lack of oth­ers,” says the the 37-year-old sea­soned ad film­maker – 1,800-odd films till date – whose jour­ney has hit a high with the re­cent suc­cess of his lat­est fea­ture film Bad­hai Ho, a sim­ple story about a mid­dle aged, mid­dle class cou­ple in Delhi that deals with an un­ex­pected preg­nancy – and the fam­ily’s re­ac­tions to it. Bad­hai Ho is pro­duced by Jun­glee Pic­tures and Chrome Pic­tures, which Sharma co-owns with with his wife Aleya SenSharma and He­mant Bhan­dari.

The first fea­ture film Sharma di­rected was Te­var, pro­duced by Boney Kapoor (2015). “I’d been think­ing about mak­ing a film for many years. Boneyji saw all my ads and asked me to make Te­var. Ini­tially I didn’t want to, as it was a re-make but he con­vinced me,” he says. Te­var was ap­pre­ci­ated for its stylised treat­ment but didn’t have much box of­fice im­pact. Bad­hai Ho’s fate is de­light­fully dif­fer­ent – it has made Chrome the first ad-fo­cused pro­duc­tion house to make a ‘100 crore film’.

Was this a sur­prise for Sharma and team? “One re­ally can’t pre­dict what will be liked. I felt peo­ple would like this film but didn’t imag­ine this level (of suc­cess)...” fields Sharma, adding, “I’m an ad guy and I like mak­ing idead­riven films. This film is based on a big idea. I didn’t think about au­di­ence re­ac­tion or who would be act­ing in it. I like work­ing on re­lat­able char­ac­ters and ex­plor­ing the equa­tions be­tween fam­ily mem­bers.” While Bad­hai Ho is cen­tered on a 51-year-old lady get­ting preg­nant, it was more about the in­ti­macy be­tween the cou­ple, he in­sists.

How was the idea born? Ak­shat Ghildial, one of the writ­ers in the film, a for­mer McCann Delhi hand, had writ­ten this for one of his clients in 2012. Some­how, it was never pre­sented; the client, we learn, had al­ready green-lighted some­thing else. “Then in 2015, I heard it as a one-line idea,” shares Sharma, “We both felt it was fea­ture film idea. Ak­shat and Shan­tanu Sri­vas­tava started writ­ing it soon af­ter.”

For many, Bad­hai Ho is a com­edy and a drama in equal mea­sure. When the process be­gan, Sharma didn’t have any par­tic­u­lar genre in mind for the film. “I just wanted it to be funny and sen­si­tive. Films are im­pact­ful when they make you cry or laugh hard. This was re­ally just about telling a

good story. The char­ac­ters need to have their own back-sto­ries too – that is, their rea­sons for be­hav­ing the way they do. I do that in ad films as well,” he says, un­der­scor­ing the im­por­tance of the di­rec­tor’s in­volve­ment in the story from scratch, as op­posed to step­ping in only at the film­ing stage.

About the shoot, he tells us, “The sim­pler the film, the tougher it is... big scale movies use mas­sive, wide shots, but those are not dif­fi­cult. In ac­tion films there can be en­gross­ing ac­tion se­quences where it doesn’t mat­ter if the au­di­ence re­mem­bers what hap­pened be­fore it. But when it comes to cre­at­ing a fam­ily, you re­ally want the au­di­ence to be­come a part of their world, to be en­gaged with their highs and lows,” liken­ing the process to cre­at­ing a sym­phony wherein each char­ac­ter and each scene has to be in sync, with no room for a false note.

“Be­cause one would’ve met such char­ac­ters in real life, it was even more im­por­tant to de­pict them well. Also, all our ac­tors un­der­stood the tone of the film well...” he says.

Vet­eran ac­tor Surekha Sikhri (cast in Bad­hai Ho) has said that Sharma is an “aes­thet­i­cally alive” di­rec­tor with a strong eye for de­tail­ing.

Be it Google’s fa­mous ‘Re­union’ (2013), Big Cin­e­mas’ ‘Silent An­them’ (2011), or Jammu and Kash­mir Tourism’s ‘Warm­est Place on Earth’ (2017), Sharma’s films are able to evoke emo­tions even on re­peat view­ing - a mark of a well-told story. “Friends and rel­a­tives used to say,

‘Yeh ad di­rec­tor karta kya hai? Film toh

start hote hi khatam ho jaati hain!’ My mother would end up show­ing them shoot-time pho­tos of me in­struct­ing my cast,” Sharma re­calls.

DELHI TO MUM­BAI VIA PRADEEP SARKAR

“I come from a fam­ily of gov­ern­ment ser­vants and ‘did the­atre’ since I was a kid, but never imag­ined I’d be a film­maker. My fa­ther was con­cerned about me, but my mother had faith that I would ‘do some­thing’,” he rem­i­nisces.

When his mother (who worked in Do­or­dar­shan’s en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment) once asked him if he’d model, he felt he could be a ‘hero’. Through some­one in Con­tract Ad­ver­tis­ing he got through to film­maker Pradeep Sarkar.

“I used to call him per­sis­tently; fi­nally his pro­duc­tion man­ager asked me to come with a friend for a Limca scratch film (around the late ‘90s). I thought I was the lead, but ended up among the kids in the back­ground,” he jokes.

Soon Sharma got an­other call from Sarkar’s crew for a shoot in Manali for Or­a­cle, a lo­gis­tics brand. “It was my first time fac­ing the cam­era. Also, in those ‘no-ef­fects’ days, I was mes­merised by dada’s film­ing tricks. I wanted to work with him, but he told me to com­plete twelfth grade first!” he says. Sharma’s fa­ther even tried to make him take typ­ing les­sons, though there were com­put­ers then. In­ci­den­tally, he now adds his fa­ther Ravin­der­nath’s name to his, in movie cred­its. “He’s a dis­cern­ing film buff who never misses a re­lease, and can rightly pre­dict the fate of a film,” he says of him. Mean­while Sarkar left Con­tract to start his own com­pany (Fat­Man Films, later re-named Apoca­lypso) in Delhi, and Sharma was his first em­ployee “It was gru­elling. He told me if I sur­vived for a year, I would do this for a life­time... if not, I’d be a gro­cery shop owner or a prop­erty dealer,” laughs Sharma. He worked across de­part­ments - cos­tumes, props, wakeup calls, shoot, as well as pre- and post-pro­duc­tion. “It was only three years later that I un­der­stood that I was an AD (As­sis­tant Di­rec­tor),” he jokes.

Even­tu­ally, Sarkar’s pro­duc­tion house shifted to Mum­bai; this was the 18-year-old Sharma’s first time away from home. Those early emo­tional re­u­nions with his folks are the in­spi­ra­tion for some of his work, he feels. His mother wanted to see him di­rect Amitabh Bachchan one day, but passed away be­fore he did the KBC pro­mos.

Sharma who grew up in a refugee colony in Jung­pura Ex­ten­sion, Delhi, filmed parts of Bad­hai Ho at his own school (Bal­vantray Mehta Vidya Bhawan). “The dadi, and the par­ents’ char­ac­ters were based on my own. We lived in a joint fam­ily – the dy­nam­ics and ban­ter have made it to my work. More­over, the ba­sic plot may seem un­usual to a Mil­len­nial, but was not un­usual in the past; “my grand­mother and my grand­mother’s mother were preg­nant at the same time...”

“My grand­mother had handed over all her valu­ables to her best friend - a Mus­lim girl called Ra­jjobe­fore es­cap­ing from Pak­istan,” he adds. The ‘Google Re­union’ film, a land­mark one for him, gave him an op­por­tu­nity to tap into these sto­ries.

IT ALL BE­GAN WITH...

At 21, when Sharma made a short film called ‘Free Fall­ing’ on a Hi8 cam­era, he felt he could di­rect ads. Two years later, Sarkar gave him a 10-sec­ond buy-one-get-one promo for Usha Fans to di­rect, and an­other for Mar­bel Can­dies (with Josy Paul).

So, Sharma and team come from the ‘Pradeep Sarkar school of emo­tional sto­ries’. In the early days, the con­cern was they’d limit them­selves to that type. “Aleya had faith we would crack the ‘style’ ones too,” he says, high­light­ing the need to defy slot­ting films into - hu­mour, emo­tions, hair, beauty, brand spe­cific.

In 2005, Aleya Sen (who worked with Sarkar too) and he de­cided to move on and start Chrome Pic­tures. “Aleya’s fa­ther (Niloy Sen) was with JWT so she was fa­mil­iar with the ecosys­tem, and en­cour­aged me to be­come a di­rec­tor. He­mant Bhan­dari, my child­hood friend who worked with Shoo­jit Sir­car, also joined us.”

For folks used to toil­ing day and night, the sud­den lull was un­nerv­ing. “In the be­gin­ning, we got 10-15-sec­on­ders for Hor­licks, Mal­tova and Boost. When Hor­licks’

“I don’t read scripts; I hear them out loud to con­nect and vi­su­alise. If you see it in a cer­tain way, your con­vic­tion can make oth­ers see it too.”

fa­mous ‘Epang Gopang Ja­pang’ ad (di­rected by Sarkar) was to re­lease in Burma, we needed to show a Burmese mother at the end – which JWT asked us to shoot. We re­quested them to give us an ex­tra film for no charge (Haynes un­der­gar­ments). The client liked it and paid pro­duc­tion costs - the ‘Kachchewali film’ as it was known be­came our first pop­u­lar one!” he laughs. Post Haynes, scripts started rolling in at Chrome. Kel­logg’s, Sonata Watches, Fas­track (with John Abra­ham) and Idea were among the ear­lier brands the firm made films for.

THE DI­REC­TO­RIAL PROCESS

“I don’t read scripts; I hear them out loud to con­nect and vi­su­alise. If you see it in a cer­tain way, your con­vic­tion can make oth­ers see it too,” says Sharma about his process, go­ing on to re­veal that he doesn’t rely on sto­ry­boards much. “The AD does make them, but then peo­ple bury their heads in print­outs. I like to nar­rate. Be­fore a shoot, I don’t plan much, or write down shots. I sim­ply ask for the set, cam­era and ac­tors and they leave it to me,” he ex­plains.

Most of his ads are set to some ex­cep­tional mu­sic. He says, “I play some rel­e­vant mu­sic when I shoot, emo­tional films es­pe­cially. But I don’t give any mu­sic ref­er­ences to clients.”

The emo­tional scenes in Google’s ‘Re­union’ ad were filmed to Piyush Mishra’s songs from Coke Stu­dio, for in­stance. “Sukesh (Nayak) had Nee­lesh Jain from O&M write the fi­nal song. I wanted it to be nos­tal­gic; the brand was a bit hes­i­tant... fi­nally, we got Mishra to sing it,” he says.

An­other mem­o­rable emo­tional film was Big Cin­e­mas’ ‘Silent An­them’. The use of slow mo­tion and black-and-white im­agery made it quite com­pelling. Is slow mo­tion a com­mon go-to for emo­tive ads? “Not al­ways. In ‘Re­union’ noth­ing is in slo-mo, not even when they first face each other... ex­cept that last shot in the rain. In Bad­hai Ho, I shot the cli­max in high speed (to en­able slomo) but when I was edit­ing it I took it back to nor­mal. The drama was al­ready there; it would’ve be­come overtly melo­dra­matic...” he says.

How spon­ta­neous a di­rec­tor is Sharma? “I do take hy­giene shots but if some­thing amaz­ing and im­pact­ful hap­pens on set, I use it. Spon­tane­ity is cru­cial,” he as­serts, “Most films born out out of re­search just die...”

But don’t bud­gets limit the scope for spon­tane­ity? “There may be client pres­sure but you can show them your way. It de­pends on the rap­port. For SBI Life, I was shoot­ing for Piyush (Pandey) Sir, with a cou­ple in a car. I needed 45 sec­onds to play out the song; there were con­straints but Sir al­lowed it,” he says.

Un­der­scor­ing the fact that di­rec­tors have to think on their feet, he says, “In the same film, we had to show rain on a run­ning car. And the guy didn’t know how to drive - (he fibbed in au­di­tions!) - so we got the car on a low-loader and added wa­ter drums as we needed a con­stantly wet wind­screen...”

DI­REC­TION IN THE ERA OF CON­TENT

Isn’t the ad­vent of dig­i­tal open sea­son for di­rec­tors look­ing to show­case their skills? Turns out, dig­i­tal en­ables bet­ter show­case, but, counter-in­tu­itively, the usual con­straints per­sist. “Cut­ting painstak­ingly taken shots ap­plies to dig­i­tal too. The ‘Re­union’ film is five min­utes long, but I was told peo­ple don’t click when they see ‘5.0’. ‘Make

“If some­thing amaz­ing and im­pact­ful hap­pens on set, I use it. Spon­tane­ity is cru­cial.”

it say 1.59 or 2.59’, I was told. The ‘Jammu and Kash­mir’ film came to be known by its song ‘Sahibo’, writ­ten by a Kash­miri IAS of­fi­cer. I was told to make it in two min­utes, but the song took it to five...” ex­plains Sharma.

Fram­ing, art, cos­tumes, sets, ac­tors’ ex­pres­sions - one deep dives into the de­tails in ad films. “I’ve learnt ev­ery­thing from ad­ver­tis­ing, specif­i­cally pre­ci­sion, de­tail­ing and the tech­ni­cal as­pects,” he says. In ad­ver­tis­ing, films are usu­ally shot in lin­ear for­mat un­like in fea­ture films, where all scenes that go with a par­tic­u­lar set are shot in one go.

Ad­ver­tis­ing also hones you well on the cast­ing front. “I usu­ally never get any­one till the last mo­ment. And I love it when ac­tors break my own first im­pres­sions,” he re­veals, adding that peo­ple from the­atre tend to be fear­less and mal­leable.

Speak­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ence with mar­keters over the years, Sharma is of the view that they re­ally do be­lieve in “the value added by the di­rec­tor” to­day. In­ter­est­ingly, mar­keters’ in­volve­ment in the film mak­ing process and “own­er­ship” of the ad film is higher to­day. They’re also more ac­co­mo­dat­ing of the di­rec­tor’s vi­sion.

Re­call­ing the fi­nal film for Ama­zon’s Chonkpur Chee­tah cam­paign, he says, “I wanted to change some­one in the cast on shoot day; O&M Ban­ga­lore’s Azaz (cre­ative lead Aza­zul Haque) and the client Su­mit Kapoor (brand mar­ket­ing head at Ama­zon) agreed...” Nowa­days, ser­vic­ing folks also un­der­stand the value of a shot, the ‘ex­tra 5 sec­onds’, the mu­sic, etc. and gun for the di­rec­tor’s de­mands to be met.

To­day, the au­di­ence land­scape has changed as well. Pre­vi­ously, peo­ple would make up their minds about giv­ing a film a shot by the look of the trailer; to­day, “word of mouth is cru­cial; the au­di­ence re­ally has to watch a film and like it first. This is true not just for small films but for big star­rers too...”

Of course we asked Sharma to com­pare the process of di­rect­ing an ad film with a fea­ture film: “In films, the di­rec­tor and writer have a hus­band-wife re­la­tion­ship. In ads, the two have a one-night stand equa­tion.”

What’s next for Sharma? He’s al­ready back to di­rect­ing ads. He’s also busy prep­ping for his next fea­ture film, a foot­ball biopic pro­duced by Boney Kapoor. ■

AMIT SHARMA CO-FOUNDER & DI­REC­TOR CHROME PIC­TURES

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