Not many know that it was a short ad film, barely four seconds long, shot by a maverick adman that led to the discovery of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. It was the early 1990s―a time when ads were not skipped but etched in our memories, thanks to catchy slogans and jingles―and a young Prahlad Kakar was looking for a face for his next Pepsi commercial. That’s when Aishwarya, then a student of architecture, and her male colleague walked into his office, with a fat portfolio in hand. The duo had come to consult Kakar’s wife, Mitali, when his assistant spotted Aishwarya. “What struck me first were her grey-green eyes, which would change colour depending on her mood…. Even now when she is angry, they become green. When she is happy, they become grey-green,” writes Kakar in his latest book Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad. Many years later when they became friends, Kakar brought her a pair of jade earrings from Myanmar that matched the colour of her eyes.
Aishwarya’s first ad shoot was anything but easy―20 takes to say one line: “Hi, I am Sanju. Got another Pepsi?” He narrates how they did a free hair and a wet hair look. He wanted her body language to be just right, hence the many takes. “She was close to tears,” writes Kakar. “She was very young, and very inexperienced, protected, studious and had never even dated. I wanted her to get a room full of guys to fall for her but the problem was that Aishwarya herself wasn’t convinced that she was good looking enough to get a room full of men to fall for her. And then, when she delivered, destinies, both hers and ours, changed forever.”
It is noon on a weekend when we meet Kakar at his home in suburban Mumbai. He is at the dining table, nursing a glass of what looks like carrot-and-beetroot juice. He is warm and welcoming and breaks into an animated chatter the moment I ask him to sign a copy of his book. “Isn’t it unputdownable?” asks Kakar, 75. I say it is. “We ad people have so much to say; for every project, there is an entire story behind a story which can become a film in itself,” he says, as a domestic help combs his signature salt-and-pepper locks.
His latest book is a compendium of his years as an ad filmmaker―close to four decades―with anecdotes from some of the most memorable campaigns he has done for prestigious clients and corporates. The book is divided into chapters that begin from his early “mad hostel years” to training under a “reluctant mentor like Shyam Benegal”, whom he credits for teaching him the art of storytelling and how to capture it on celluloid, to his time at Genesis, an ad firm he cofounded, and everything in between. Tell him what a fat book he has penned and he says, “Not fat enough. I left [out] so much of what I had to say. I think I will have to write another one now.”
The book is a breezy read, peppered with his irreverent humour and sarcasm. “As far as I can remember, I have always―without exception―been thrown out of respectable institutions for being at the right place at the wrong time, and for not being able to keep my mouth shut,” writes Kakar. “The glee I got from it came much later when I decided to have fun while being thrown out.”
And, he has been thrown out of hostels and paying guest accommodations, of course, but he has also gate-crashed his then girlfriend’s wedding, trying (and failing) to elope with her and gifting her a mangalsutra as a parting gift in front of the full gathering. So, does he find himself at the right place at the right time now? “Well, now I have started enjoying needling the establishment,” he says, laughing. “It is like, ‘let’s see what it takes to get thrown out.’ I think that has been my evolution. Occasionally, I must be thrown out of places, otherwise they will call me old and that I have lost the plot.”
The 1990s saw an abundance of memorable ads, and Kakar was at the peak of his career then. “My clients kept coming back to me for 25 years on the trot,” he says. “I worked with Pepsi for 15 years, with Nestle for 25 years on Maggi. So the bar of the industry was raised entirely by Genesis. The 1990s was the time when the best work came out of this country in advertising.”
The success of Pepsi has been close to his heart. “Nobody ever looked at a Pepsi film and said this is not about Pepsi but about Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh [Khan] or Sachin [Tendulkar],” says Kakar. “It always was a Pepsi film.”
How did he ace the 30-second ad filmmaking? “Purely by gut reaction, instinct,” says Kakar. “I would close my eyes and try and visualise it. But they never understood that and thought I was being arrogant…. Filmmakers should be able to read scripts and see the film. Because if he cannot see the film, he is the wrong person to make the film.”
Called Indian ad industry’s feared and beloved leprechaun, Kakar was also known to change scripts. He writes about an ad he had to do for P&G, which he found “crushingly boring and atrocious”. So he “would shoot it their way, get it out of the way and then shoot it my way”. “Sometimes the client would hate his version and end up liking mine,” he says. “Right now nobody does two films. They only do it for the client and the money that comes with it. They all forget about their own brand and only remember the star as against in films that we used to do―the star was always the second lead; the brand was the main [lead]. And, scripts were written around the brand.”
Ads of today are only mediocre, says Kakar. “It is evident from the consumer reaction to ads nowadays,” he says. “During our time, they would prefer watching the ads over the content. But now it is the reverse. Ads have become irritating for the viewer and she is opting for content without ads by paying extra. Unfortunately, clients are not understanding this.”
But the free hand he had at Genesis would have been restrained if not for the “iron fist in a velvet glove”―his wife, Mitali. They got married when he was 36 and she 22 and have three sons. “The first thing she did after our wedding was to take over the finances of Genesis, leaving me free to dream and create. She even put me on a stipend so that I wouldn’t run the company into the ground,” he writes. She seems to have forgiven him for having forgotten about their wedding even as the preparations for the same were on.
Kakar is now associated with quite a few OTT projects, and is also mentoring a production house and vetting their scripts to “see whether they are worth making or not”.
So, what makes Kakar rock after all these years? “I have no filters,” he says. “I don’t need them. I say it the way it is and you take it the way you want to. I have no malice towards anyone because I see people in shades of grey.”
Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad
By Prahlad Kakar with Rupangi Sharma
Published by HarperCollins India
Price Rs799; pages 526