Death of a Salesman

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Alyque Padamsee became India’s greatest story-teller at a time when we were still coming to terms with our self-worth as a nation, idealistic to the core but yet apologetic, fumbling, barefooted and unsure about screaming out loud on the world stage. Films were the only expression of our aspiration or wish fulfillment and incredible  though we may have been, there was no concept of Brand India, ambassadors and advertising. India’s greatest ad guru, who passed away at the ripe old age of 90 — literally as a vanguard of a nation in transit — shaped our identity in popular culture. A people who could have aspirations, chase them and make them happen while retaining their innate Indianness. And concretise wishful thinking with home-grown products. In that sense, he sold us our first global dream. No wonder, till date he is considered the only god of Indian advertising and sales.

So by the time 1970s happened and the angry young man was taking shape on the big screen with Big B, his female counterpart exploded in the form of the Liril girl, soap suds gliding down her green bikini as she splashed about with Amazonian glee and abandon under a waterfall, literally tra la la-ing her way into our minds. The bell bottoms and halter tops were coming but model Karen Lunel signified the “liberation” moment as it were for a generation of  Indian women. Such was the campaign’s appeal that it became the launchpad for later supermodels and now stars, Preity Zinta and Deepika Padukone. Alyque researched heavily for what seemed like an easy breeze. In his own words, “The most memorable brand till, possibly, today was Liril soap. We studied the Indian housewife to find out what she thought about when she got 10 minutes to herself. HLL’s research came up with an amazing answer that she dreams of escape from a life of drudgery and responsibility. Her thoughts begin to drift as she begins her bath. She hums a tune from a popular Bollywood film and the most popular fantasy of all was Amitabh Bachchan riding on a white horse and carrying her away from work...work...work... We decided on a freshness soap based on these findings. The soap would refresh the housewife as she escapes into her bath. On the basis of that was invented the girl in the waterfall. The la-la-la jingle became the theme song for young people in India. The ad was partly inspired by Raj Kapoor’s movies and largely by the comic Tarzan and Jane.”

There was no looking back for the head of Lintas since. While he worked with many lissome ladies, emboldening a generation — Zeenat Aman and Persis Khambatta among them — he knew he had to keep it grounded. The Hindi was in full pop play. So when Surf  was desperately looking to beat competition from a cheaper detergent Nirma, he gave us Lalitaji, the quintessential middle class mother who weighed her choices, kept to her family budget and whose somewhat stentorian and disciplinarian ways were familiar and convincing. As she chanted, “Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai,” he kept changing the situation storyboards to create one of India’s first series campaigns that had everyday recall and evolved with people’s lives.

He created a desi Charlie Chaplin for shoe polish brand Cherry Blossom, giving an aesthete twist to something that was not back then considered a self-service job. And by the time he invented the catchline “Hamara Bajaj,” he had elevated everyday family life and its outings on a scooter as a cult symbol of “Buland Bharat ki buland tasveer.”  When he created MRF’s Muscle Man, India was indeed ready to proclaim itself. 

Alyque did a lot of public service campaigns too and till his last days was on the AIDS task force set up by the Prime Minister. However, he found the Kamasutra ad a big challenge. In one of his columns, he wrote, “One day Gautam Singhania walked into the Lintas office and told me he had the knowhow for a quality condom. But the idea of creating an ad for a condom caused a bit of a giggle; and there were reservations too. Finally, we came up with an apt name, KamaSutra or KS. Gautam had met Pooja Bedi at a party and thought she was the right person to carry off the condom ad. Finally, Pooja agreed to do the ad for a whopping Rs 7 lakh!”

Age was no bar for the original thinker.  So in a crowded beauty market, he was the clutter-breaker by creating the Fair & Handsome brand for Emami. “Fair & Lovely was well-entrenched in the mind of women, so replacing that would have been difficult. Therefore I suggested looking for an opportunity in the men’s market,” he wrote. He asked Emami to put a mirror in one of the prominent locations at their office and video-record staff stopping before it. Ninety per cent were men! Such was his rare understanding of the Indian psyche (born out of his experiences of roughing it out on buses for 10 years), that he could direct popular thinking. It was this genius that political parties, waking up to a spiffed up Amercian-style campaigning in the post liberalisation years, tapped into. The Congress image-makers relied on him and if Cyberabad and Chandrababu Naidu caught the nation’s fancy as the new IT frontier, a fair bit of credit must go to Alyque. 

But no assessment of the creative guru would be complete without acknowledging his role in serious theatre, having directed 70 plays, Tughlaq being notable among them. Besides he gave India a near Broadway experience with his epic musical productions like Evita  and Jesus Christ Superstar. He also portrayed Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi.

But Alyque was never self-serving, keen on promoting talent at every stage of his life. So if he created a legion of capable creative directors in advertising, he gave the entertainment industry more leading lights like ex-wife Sharon Prabhakar, singer Alisha Chinai, actors Boman Irani and Javed Jaffery and choreographer Shiamak Davar.

True he won many honours, national and international, in all his disciplines. But his greatest takeaways were the sales of the products he wrapped with his genius. “The greatest ads are the ones that create the greatest sales. A good ad man is a good salesman,” he would say. And for every Indian, he will always be the man who taught us to “live life kingsize.”

(First published in The Pioneer; dailypioneer.com)

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