"Advertising is not about promoting yourself; it is about promoting the product" : ad and theatre personality Bharat Dabholkar

For almost 15 years, his name was synonymous with the celebrated utterly butterly Amul campaigns; his Bottoms Up series remains the most performed English play in India and full credit goes to him for having bridged the gap between regional and English theatre through his invention of 'Hinglish' theatre.

Maverick adman and undisputed king of satire Bharat Dabholkar has dabbled (and excelled) in advertising, television and theatre. And as if it were not enough, he is now ready with his first film titled God Only Knows! which is a spoof on almost everything under the sun.

A man of varied interests, this former president of Da Cunha Associates has won several accolades for his work. Dabholkar spoke to's Vickey Lalwani and Hetal Adesara about his movie, his association with advertising and his new company, Why Not Productions. Find out what makes this man tick and more... Excerpts:



You have been involved with advertising and theatre, and now you have ventured into films... how do you plan to juggle between these?

For the last 20 years, I have been involved in advertising along with theatre and I have juggled the two very well. So I don't think that should be a problem.

I have been thinking about this movie idea for a long time now and I realised that no matter how much time I give to films, theatre will be an ongoing commitment. Every Sunday for the last three years I have been giving my time to theatre. This film I have made was completed in 38 days. But we are still involved in it in terms of post production. I continue being in advertising as I am on the board of Publicis Zen, but my involvement is more need based. So when my clients need me to attend meetings, I attend.

For the next two years, I am on the board of Publicis. At the end of it, we will mutually decide if we want to continue with my involvement. As of now, I will continue both. We have a whole set up of senior professionals who are running the agency now. So my day to day involvement is not really required except for the clients whom I have handled personally.



Who are your major clients?

Publicis' clients are L'Oreal, Nestle, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Tata Tea, Tata Mutual Funds and a part of Tata Chemicals.



In the last one and half years, since you have been involved with your film, has Publicis got any new clients?

We've got new brands from our existing clients. We've got new brands from Nestle and L'Oreal which we didn't have earlier. Almost all our older clients have stayed with us in the last year or so. But we haven't had any new clients.



What drew you to films? And what do you think is lacking in cinema today?

Frankly, films is something that has been a natural extension of the theatre that I have done. One thing that is lacking in the film industry today is that there are no good scripts. We have great actors, great technicians and great directors, but what is lacking is script.

I have done many plays that have been performed all over the world. So we have scripts which have been tried and tested, and have met with success in various parts of the country. Now it is only a question of utilising these scripts and putting them on a larger canvas. This is the first step where we have ready scripts so we can take one or two of them and get going with a movie.



Bharat Dabholkar with Jackie Shroff (extreme left) on the sets of his movie 'God Only Knows' "People may say I have made a lousy film & that I am an idiot. But it's ok. I have the right to be wrong"




Which was your last worthwhile offering to the ad world?

None actually. There is nothing that I can say was worthwhile. I have had fun with whatever I have done. I was known more for the Amul butter ads. But I have launched lots of ads for brands like Bank of India, LIC, Frooti and many more. I launched every brand of tea that Tata Tea has in the country today. I have also launched the 'Born Tough' Rhino of Ceat. All these were fun to work for.



Still, if you think hard, which ad of yours comes to mind as different from the rest?

When I am doing the ad; I like it but six months later I feel that it was nothing great, so it keeps changing. In 2003, the ad that I was personally involved with in terms of creativity was Tata Tea.



Which ad campaign has impressed you the most in 2003?

The problem with advertising has been - whether it is my campaign or anybody else's campaign - is that whatever is going on at that time may seem good. For example, right now I can say that the ongoing Hutch-Orange campaign is a great campaign but six months later I wouldn't remember that, I would probably remember something else. So whatever is happening at this particular moment creates an impact on you and that's the purpose of advertising - to make sure that at that point of time you don't remember anything else but that.



Your company Why Not Productions (WNP) also intended to get into television programming and music videos…

I have done some television programming, acted in some television serials - Hindi, Marathi and English. I have written and directed a breakfast television show for Doordarshan called Dhamaal. It was the first and the last serial where we had Bollywood superstars acting in it. I had Govinda, Sanjay Dutt and Anil Kapoor in my show.

Right now, I haven't got anything on my hands as far as television is concerned. I'll do television when something comes up. We now have Why Not as a company, the idea is that we will be looking at television, films and everything connected with this media. We produced a music video for a poem written by the prime minister.

We haven't submitted any proposals for television serials as yet but have spoken to a lot of people. As of now nothing concrete has come up.



"The idea of turning a blind eye to surrogate advertising is a blatant flouting of rules"  



How do you look at advertising these days? Do you think it needs censorship?

Advertising doesn't need censorship. I think music videos need censorship.



What about surrogate advertising?

Surrogate advertising is more of a political or legal question than an advertising question. Frankly if you ask me, either the government should allow advertising of liquor brands or should ban it. The idea of turning a blind eye to surrogate advertising is a blatant flouting of rules.

As far as advertising agencies are concerned, whatever is manufactured can be advertised. What shouldn't be advertised is something for the government as a political discipline to decide. I don't think there are any advertising campaigns that need to be censored.



Recently, there was a furore over a mobile phone ad starring Bipasha Basu where she says, "I will dance with the one who has the smallest…"

I personally feel that some advertisers don't realise that there is a social censorship that happens in any case. People don't buy your product if it embarrasses you. It is not like a music video or a film where at the most, one will say that it is horrible and choose not to see it.

Here, advertising is done to sell a product, not to be creative or to be noticed. The whole existence of advertising is that it is a marketing tool to sell a product. If you try and do something as stupid as that (the Bipasha ad) which you think is very witty but if the consumer doesn't think so, then they will not buy your product. So censorship is not in terms of someone coming and telling you not to do it, the moment the product doesn't sell, the ad is not working.



So, do you think these gimmicks don't work?

It depends. What is important is that you have to keep in mind who you are talking to. A lot of times people forget their target audience and they make jokes and bold campaigns which in the end, don't necessarily work in their favour.

Advertising is not about promoting yourself; it is about promoting the product. Take the example of the ad for MR Coffee. Housewives felt embarrassed to ask for it in a shop, which means that the ad didn't work because the ad makers didn't take into account the consumers.

Most of the times, these bold ads are on a razor's edge, if it works for audiences, it does, but if it alienates everybody else then it doesn't work. Nowadays marketing has become a numbers game… trying to beat as many people as possible, trying to get as many people to buy the product from major cities to small towns. So there should be something in the ad that appeals to everybody, you can't have something that is so niche that only a handful of people will laugh at a joke and understand what is being said.



Bharat Dabholkar on the sets of his movie 'God Only Knows!'

 "We have begun the film by saying that it is the biggest flop Bollywood has ever seen"



The Amul tag still sticks to you. If you do venture into making television programmes, will humour and satire be the bedrock of the programming you will be involved in or will you follow the regular family soap genre?

I'll tell you what happens with satire... it is very easy for people to criticise what is happening on television by saying that comedies on television are bad. Television has the kind of reach that even cinema doesn't have. You don't have to buy a ticket to go and see it. You just have to switch on the television and swap channels and see whatever you like.

But to make somebody sitting in Pedder Road in Mumbai laugh at the same time as somebody sitting in a small town in Muzaffarpur or a village in Dhulia is very difficult. Some people will find it too sophisticated; some will find it too basic or too cheap…

A person making a soap should feel that, "I will cater to only this particular set of people and it doesn't matter to me who else sees it." It is impossible to make a comedy that is accepted universally. Of course there was a time when a serial like Yeh Jo Hai Jindagi worked with the audiences. No doubt they were very well written but at the same time people didn't have a choice, so those programmes grew on people. Now if a serial is slightly boring, you switch off, so the characters don't even get the time to grow on you.

The family dramas just give makers the numbers. I don't have the expertise in doing these family dramas. In life, one should do not try to do what works but should ask himself the question - Can I do what works? With me, the problem is that if I stick to satire I don't know how I can do a programme which will have universal appeal. It will have to be a very carefully crafted thing.

When I am scripting a play, I know what kind of audience will be coming to watch my plays so there is a face in front of me when I write. But in the case of television it will not be that personal because there is a diverse lot that watches it.



Are you looking at TV programming which would target international markets?

I haven't thought of it. We have thought of lots of things to do on television but we haven't really progressed any further. We were concentrating on this movie first and two more movies are also in the pipeline.


Do you think the television industry is running short of ideas? Or is it a case of saturation achieved too soon?

I really don't know because I don't watch that much of TV. I only watch WWF, Animal Planet and Discovery Channel. I am never at home to watch it. If you ask me about Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, I won't be able to tell you anything about it. It's not that I don't like these programmes; I just don't know what they are all about.


Tell us something about your company Why Not.

Why Not is a company which Ramesh Gowani and I formed and is run by Ananya Dutt. The idea was that we would make whatever that falls under entertainment. Maybe we would start with films or television. We've just finished making our first film. We have plans of making two more films in 2004 and we have the scripts ready. I only want to make films that I have written. For the time being we are sticking to films… maybe later I will do other things also.


Who is looking after the marketing? Being an ad man, does innovative marketing come naturally?

The marketing of our film is being taken care of by Viveck Vaswani who is an old friend from my theatre days. He's been a producer himself so we thought he was the right choice.

To sell the movie in terms of creativity is my responsibility. We created teasers of the film and placed ads in newspapers which were devised by me. But the marketing in terms of who to sell the film to is done by Viveck. He is not involved with how to advertise the film or how to position it. He is involved with who to go and talk to in which part of the country, which international buyers to talk to... So in short the selling of the film to buyers is what he is doing. Ours is a 'Hinglish' film with a small budget, so it does not have a market like other Hindi movies. So we have to make good use of each and every rupee of ours.



"Ours is a small budget 'Hinglish' film, so it doesn't have a market like other movies"

Bharat Dabholkar breaking the auspicious coconut for his first movie 'God Only Knows!'




Tell us something about the film. How did you decide on the cast etc?

This film has some of the best names from theatre - some who have worked with me on stage and some who haven't. So when I conceived the film, I thought that these are the people who I have access to because they are my friends. So I contacted everyone who was my friend and told them that they must act in my movie.

We have a lot of big names in this movie. There is a one minute role in this movie done by someone who is a very big name in theatre. Award winning directors and actors have done two minute roles and walk on roles. We got Dr Nitu Mandke, Louis Banks, Shivamani, Jackie Shroff and Johnny Lever to act. I also wanted Suniel Shetty in my movie but it didn't materialise because he was in South Africa when we were going to shoot his scene. But we will definitely take him in our next movie as he is a very good friend. None of these people asked me what their role was, no one asked me for money. They just did it as friends.



How did you zero in on the script of the movie?

I had done a play called Last Tango in Heaven but that's the germ of the idea because a film is on a much bigger scale. Theatre is more restricted because you can't take more than 10 actors and you have one set or at the most two sets.

The film is on a larger canvas. I thought of a minister being taken to heaven and how he creates havoc there by deciding to take over heaven. This film is complete spoof on advertising, politics, cricket, theater, Bollywood, hospitals, doctors, conmen and ourselves. We have begun the film by saying that it is the biggest flop Bollywood has ever seen.



Weren't you tempted to make a big budget movie like all others are doing these days?

I don't believe in doing things I am not comfortable with. Films are big budget affairs, not because of the film in itself but because of its cast. A person can make a film in twenty million rupees, but if he plans to have 28 stars in it and pays each actor even 10 million rupees; the budget of the film will automatically become 300 million. It will not be a 300 million film because it is a 300 million story.

What is wrong with the film industry today is that the actors and directors are getting paid in millions but the writers are getting paid in thousands. The day that equation changes and writers start getting paid more, then we can make great cinema. The writer is the soul of the entire movie and if he is paid twenty million, he will write magic.



Coming back to advertising, are we really out of the slump or is it more hype than substance?

I think we have turned the corner in a way. We haven't started doing great things but it will happen. Advertising is not an independent entity, it is linked to the economy. When the economy picks up, advertising picks up.

Right now, from the looks of it, things are picking up. Advertising budget is the first thing that gets axed the moment there is a slump. But I don't think that is the right thing to do because when things are bad, one must spend on advertising.



Bharat Dabholkar on the sets of his film with Jackie Shroff "Celebrity endorsement is the trickiest thing to do because its credibility is not very high"



Do you think the industry is running short of ideas? Or is it a case of saturation achieved too soon?

I think there are some great ideas in terms of creativity. The point is how many of them are getting a chance to use them. Till advertising is seen as an art with magic it can work, the moment one tries to put too much of scientific data in it, it stops working.

Advertising is not something you can do on your own. You need a client who has faith in you and your idea; so much so that even if they don't agree with you, they will back you. I had the great fortune of having a client like Dr Verghese Kurien, who had total faith in whatever I did. So we could do things which were wild sounding ideas and we had his complete backing. For example all the Amul hoardings ideas were wild. Every hoarding that went up was never shown to Dr Kurien. He saw them all at the end of the year. This is something that no client in the world does.

We launched Good Knight and Hit with minuscule budgets. We launched Hit Cockroach with 1/4 the budget of Baygon which was launched around the same time, but we had the idea that was so much more superior that we still have a 60 per cent market share which Baygon could never get. That's because our clients had faith. I think every agency needs clients like that. We have enough good people in advertising to have international standards. The very fact that we are doing so well in the international circuits like Cannes means that we have the talent.



Of ads, stage and films, which of the three do you think is the most creative and why?

I think advertising is definitely the most creative of the three. In films, you have two hours where you can show your creativity and you need to have a distributor who has faith in you. You have big stars on whose name people are buying tickets in any case. So in films, people are selling two hours of entertainment whereas in advertising you are selling 30 seconds in which you are supposed to entertain, sell a product, be competitive and make sure that people buy your product all at the same time.

Films work on personality names. If I go to somebody and say that I have Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai in my film, they will back my project not because they like the subject but because of the star cast. On the other hand, advertising doesn't work on names. It has to work on its own without the back up of names.



But nowadays a lot of celebrities are endorsing products, don't you think that is working?

Ya, there are celebrities endorsing products, but it does not necessarily always work. Celebrity endorsement is the trickiest thing to do because the credibility of celebrity endorsement is not very high.

So unless you can use a celebrity well, consumers don't generally believe that the celebs are actually using the product. So it has to be done very creatively. If it is not done well then people will just remember that there was some paint that Amitabh Bachchan was endorsing, Asian Paints or Nerolac…. That's how people talk. They remember the endorser, but not the product. Celebrity endorsement is the easy way out. If you don't have a great idea, you get a celebrity to endorse your product.



How do you see Publicis Zen performing this year in growth terms and how does it stack up with the competition?

Publicis has had a great year and from our projections, 2004 will definitely be a better year. Next year looks even brighter because we got more products from L'Oreal and some of our other clients. We are getting more products from Nestle and a lot of other clients. Also we will get more business from our international clients.

Plus we have a very young and active lot in Mumbai as well as Delhi. We have strengthened our entire network. Our Delhi office has now become bigger than our Mumbai office because most of our clients (Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Nestle) are Delhi based. We are a team of 100+ professionals.



Everyone is talking accountability, smart spending (read budget cuts) these days. How do you stay afloat in such a competitive environment and manage so many diverse interests at the same time?

I don't think that's the case with advertising. Last year I don't think there was budget cutting in advertising, in fact people were spending on advertising. Before that I think the situation was very bad. But now things are turning around.


Can you sum up your personal philosophy to life?

(Laughs) Makes me sound like a guru or something. Honestly, I don't have any particular philosophy in life.


So what keeps you going in life?

The only thing that keeps me going is that I don't take myself very seriously. People feel very passionately paranoid about what they are doing. They feel that they are changing the world. I am passionate about doing what I do well and to the best of my ability but I am not really concerned about the results. I do something and then I forget about it.

I have made my film and I put in my best but that doesn't mean that I think it going to be a path breaking film which will change the face of Bollywood and win many awards. We had fun making it and in the end we all are happy. After this we will do something else. I don't really bother about what others have to say. They may say that I have a lousy film and that I am an idiot. But it's ok. I have the right to be wrong.


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