It may be tough for creative professionals to display their prowess unhindered for a government-sponsored project with a host of rules, regulations and red-tape to adhere to, but, given a visionary Prime Minister, not impossible. As we learn, Rajiv Gandhi deserves credit for giving India two stirring ads on national integration, the latter of which has assumed near-anthem status.
“The Torch of Freedom” and “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara”, of the mid-1980s, are also abiding testimonies to the skill of India’s ad makers. And there are stories galore behind their conceptualising and making as veteran adman KV Sridhar reveals in his absorbing and comprehensive account – possibly the first one – on a vibrant facet of Indian popular culture.
In “30 Second Thrillers: Tales that tell the stories behind the Ads we love!” (Bloombury India), Sridhar aka “Pops”, recalling the early days on Doordarshan, contends it is necessary to mention “a milestone that gave advertising an entirely new dimension”.
“No matter how long we traverse into the future, these two ads of the past shall always be legends that we shall keep referring to and learning from,” he says, and goes on to explore them with veterans Piyush Pandey and Kailash Surendranath, but the late Suresh Mallick of O&M was “the actual creative heart and soul behind the two ads”.
Sridhar cites Surendranath who recalls that in the mid-1980s, “the unanimous feeling that clutched the nation was that Indians were not proud of being Indians; they were a restricted and self-doubting lot” and it was Rajiv Gandhi himself who told them to “do something that would make the Indian population proud”.
So Surendranath and Mallick “began brainstorming on the next moves. Something that would evoke the ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ feel” and it was their passion for sports, and the influence of the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1981 that inspired them.
But the logistics were overwhelming in those days before e-mail and mobiles as they could only contact the desired sportspersons by letters. Surendrnath admits the “sheer tedious way of communication cost us three months; to gather everyone and fix dates and schedules. The plan was so fluid that we were simply going where people were taking us; location wise”.
And there was no “solid plan” but improvisation in abundance which earned that stirring visuals of P.T. Usha and the young girl who insisted on running along her father, a celebrated Indian cricket captain.
There was another problem with Louis Banks’ score with officials raising objections to its ending on the strains of the National Anthem but since Rajiv Gandhi liked it, the problem was resolved.
The emotional impact “Torch of Freedom” went on to create so impressed, Gandhi that he asked them to prepare another one. This was “Mile Sur…” with its colourful tapestry of personalities from sports, arts and popular culture, along with the common man.
Pandey recalls Mallick, who was commissioned for a second add, hit on music as a combining thread and summoned him to write the lyrics. This took him multiple attempts as Mallick only approved them “the eighteenth instance”.
While Banks had written the track, with Mallick “telling him how would the music turn and manifest into what, at each juncture of the ad”, Surendranath says Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was sent the lyrics and came to Bank’s studio two weeks later to give his verdict among how it should be presented. He began singing, “giving us an half an hour recording” out of which 40 seconds were used.
The recording was passed to others like Carnatic music maestro M. Balamuralikrishna, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Vaidyanthan, who did “the ethnic part of the music”.
Surendranath says “Mile Sur..” was as improvised with several bystanders roped in, a prominent actor himself offering to feature silently, desperate attempts to arrange dates convenient for Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborty, who figure at the finale, and get Lata Mangeshkar.
Pandey also reveals that while most celebrities participated without payment, some asked but were refused and a prominent cricketer who asked how much he would get was not even featured and “am sure that he regrets this till date”.
The makers tried for a hat-trick with “Desh Raag..” featuring all top classical musicians but this was a little too high-brow for the common man. But two out of three is not bad.