Nobody’s giving any COVID concession when it comes to work: Ram Madhvani

Ram Madhvani is best known for his edgy films with strong female characters and ads that are quirky in nature and have won several awards at international festivals.

On the advertising front, for over two decades with Equinox, Madhvani has been responsible for many path-breaking commercials. In 2006, Madhvani won a Bronze and a Silver Lion at Cannes for the Happy Dent White commercial. The film also won him Best Director, Best Film and Best Production Design at the Asia Pacific Awards. Happy Dent was also voted as one of the Top 20 commercials of the millennium by the Gunn Report and was the only Indian advertisement on that list.

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On the movies front, Madhvani has been known for films with powerful female characters. Most recognised for ‘Neerja’, the film received massive critical appreciation and won several awards. Madhvani has won Best Director at the Star Screen Awards 2016, Stardust Awards 2017 and at the Zee Cine Awards 2017. He also won Critics Choice Best Film at the Filmfare Awards 2017.

Madhvani had directed the ‘Bheja Kam’ song from ‘Taare Zameen Par’ for Aamir Khan and later also directed the theme song for Khan’s TV show, ‘Satyamev Jayate’.

In 2020, Madhvani entered the OTT space with ‘Aarya’, a crime drama starring Sushmita Sen as the main lead. The film has been watched by many on Hotstar Specials and has received a lot of love from the viewers. He also directed the new Spotify ads during the lockdown period.

In this special interaction with Adgully, Ram Madhvani talk in great detail about his experience directing his first web series ‘Aarya’, production work during the pandemic, besides he also shares some tips for creative minds during the current times.

How did ‘Aarya’ come about? Could you take us through its conceptualisation and making?

I’d been wanting to make ‘Aarya’ for about 9 years now. It is based on Dutch show, ‘Penoza’. Fox Star had asked Amita, my wife and co-producer and myself to see it. We loved the strength of the main character. At that time, Fox Star wanted to make it into a movie. It took me a couple of years to figure out where to locate it, because I wanted to make it real and culturally rooted. But the film didn’t get made, and instead ‘Neerja’ happened. Then Endemol Shine and now Disney+ Hotstar met us and asked us whether we were still interested in making ‘Penoza’ as a show and I jumped at it because some stories remain with you and this was yet in our bones. It was good to have a team of people who knew each other and each other’s working style – there was Sandeep Modi, who is the co-creator & co-director; Vinod Rawat, who is also the co-director – they were my associate directors in ‘Neerja’, besides Sandeep also makes ads for Equinox, plus in Equinox we have a bunch of six directors, including me, and three producers.

While advertising is our mainstream, it is something which we thought would be a good thing to get into. We have realised that while advertising in some ways is impermanent, for us it is actually permanent; whereas shows and OTTs which are permanent, for us that’s impermanent. We are here as an advertising production house, so that’s how we thought of keeping Equinox, which Amita and I own, as our advertising production house, and we will use Ram Madhvani Films for OTTs and features.

What kind of avenues do OTT or series create for you? Do you have more room to put in your creativity compared to movies?

We tend to look at three different kinds of audiences – the advertising audience, the feature film audience, and the OTT audience. But we are also the audience ourselves and we consume advertising, feature films and OTT, but we consume these three things differently. So, I always tell my team ‘audience ki nazar se dekho’. The privilege of being the audience does not give you the privilege of knowing the audience. How can you have the arrogance of saying that this what the audience will want? Whenever someone tells me ‘aap audience ke hisab se dekho’, I ask them ‘achcha, toh main kya hoon?’. You are on the journey of being objective-subjective, because while you are inside and very involved with what you are doing, you also have to watch it from the outside. When the first cut happens, I spend a lot of time and energy removing myself from the stuff that I have created. This business is about how do you keep yourself outside while you are inside – trying to walk the tightrope of not being indulgent at the same time. Meditation has helped me over the years.

Where I am right now is because of the so many mistakes that I have made in advertising, but thankfully people only remember the good work and have forgotten the bad work. Because of that I was able to practice and still practice on it. As soon as you feel you know, you begin to have certain arrogance to your work rather than humility. I am constantly trying to see how to reinvent myself to not knowing. As long as self-criticism does not lead to paralysis, but comes with compassion and with a sense of humour, it is fine.

How do you think the pandemic and the lockdown have impacted the creative mind?

We did ‘Aarya’ during the lockdown – the editing, dubbing, VFX, et al. We finished shooting on March 6, lockdown was imposed across the country on March 17, and we released the series on June 19. In between I did two Spotify commercials. Hence, I didn’t get too much time to think about the situation. During the lockdown, people have been writing simpler so that the shooting can become simpler. Though the threat of the virus remains, people are now tired of being confined to their homes. As the industry slowly opens up, there will be more complicated scripts as people will expect narratives like before COVID-19 had struck. However, though we had simpler execution during four months of COVID-19 battle, it doesn’t mean that the message has not gone across. People have liked the work, even as clients are looking at whether their message is reaching everyone and whether you have delivered. Nobody is giving you any COVID concession when it comes to work.

Right now what we are focusing on is advertising, there is no feature or OTT planned currently. At some point ‘Aarya Season 2’ will happen, but there is no formal announcement of that right now.

What are the challenges faced in the shooting process and in the production itself under the current circumstances?

First challenge is the time it takes in the production. It takes us longer because of the strict safety protocols and large teams of people can’t work together. Therefore the teams come to the set one after the other – when the lighting team works, the others are not allowed. Once they leave, the art team comes in – it’s like a relay race and in that relay race people are passing on the baton, hopefully a sanitized baton!

The problem is that nobody has the money for long production schedules. Therefore somewhere down the line the client brings in the money angle and not everyone is on the same boat all the time. We have seen 20-30 per cent cuts for all organisations. On film shoots, whether you are a DoP or a director, you will have to work with those cuts. Therefore, everybody needs to buckle up and hopefully we will pass through these times. We don’t know how long it will take for things to return to normal. I think we all just have to put our heads down and be thankful for whatever work comes our way.

What can OTT platforms offer to the movie industry?

Pay per view as a concept has been there for several years. From a cinema perspective, if a film is a big film, then pay per view will happen in the OTT space. Even before COVID-19 struck and movie theatres were shut down, there was always a rush on Fridays as we never had enough multiplexes in the first place. So, the big question is when theatres open up, what is going to be the growth of multiplexes? In the long term people may not make multiplexes any more given the cost factor. Even if people are not making multiplex movies, the crowding on Fridays will remain as the halls open up because of the backlog of movies awaiting theatre release.

The question is not as much about the shift to OTT, but whether we will really see the growth of cinema. My feeling is that we all want to go to the theatres because of the immersive experience they offer us. In advertising, when we show a commercial to the client, he invites 20-30 people to watch the commercial and asks them what they felt about it. My job is to predict the expressions of those people and say that this is the expression that I want to leave with them. I may not be able to do these things in the OTT space because the audience’s distractions are far more. In the theatre you are my prisoner, but I can’t hold you captive on OTT – you are inviting me to your bedroom or living room and then you have the remote control in your hand. That power of the remote control is something which I have handed over to you – you can pause me, eat your dinner, attend calls while watching my content – my ability to enrapture is not 100 per cent on OTT that I use to have in the theatre.


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