R. Balki’s early passion to become a film-maker led him into the world of advertising that eventually led to the realisation of his first love, films-making.
Anyone else would be happy wearing one of his hats. But R. Balakrishnan wears two of them with much aplomb. As the chairman and chief creative officer for Lowe Lintas, one of the top three advertising agencies in India, he is one of the biggest names in the media industry. And as the director of acclaimed Bollywood films like Paa and the more recent Ki & Ka, Balki, as he is known, is a formidable name in Bollywood as well. Here’s a man who followed his passion with humongous success while simultaneously rising up the corporate ladder in his `conventional’ career. And of course sizeable paychecks have obviously followed in both his chosen careers.
Though for an outsider, the two profession he straddles might seem vastly different, for Balki, they are intertwined at the basic level. “Advertising and feature film making are, at the core of it, a problem, or puzzle solving exercise,” he told Man’s World magazine in a recent interview, “ It is like a jigsaw. You have a story. How do you weave it into a narrative? Balki, has been a household name ever since he made his directorial debut with Cheeni Kum in 2007. But television viewers across India had been watching his work, albeit unknowingly, long before he even became a film-maker.
As the head of Lowe Lintas he has been the creative force behind innovative print and TV campaigns for some of the country’s biggest brands. From Idea Cellular’s popular “Walk When You Talk” campaign and the iconic “Jago Rahe” ads for Tata Tea, to Fastrack’s progressive TVCs, the ad film-maker, now 51, has been instrumental in getting people to sit up and take notice of brands for over two decades.
Intriguingly, it was his deep passion for film-making that gave shape to his successful advertising career. Born in Tamil Nadu, Balki grew up in Bangalore on a steady dose of both Indian and international films. “I remember the first film my father took me to was Marlon Brandon’s Julius Caesar. Living in cosmopolitan Bangalore, I watched all kinds of cinema. I saw all of Amitabh Bachchan’s films…all of Rajinikanth’s and Kamal Haasan’s,” he says in an interview to The Telegraph. “My introduction to classic film-makers like (François) Truffaut happened later when I was in college.”
Although he displayed an affinity for the craft of film-making from a young age and had even applied for a course in direction at the Madras Film Institute, he embarked on his journey into the world of cinema only after he became a successful ad film-maker. It is said that he walked out of the film institute’s application interview because he didn’t quite like the panel of interviewers. Instead, Balki, who was well acquainted with computers, went on to do his Masters in Computer Application.
Ironically, his career in advertising was born out of a miscommunication. He had just been expelled from college because of lack of attendance, when he found himself responding to a newspaper advertisement that carried the Mudra logo. At the time, he remembered seeing Mudra’s logo in the credits of Buniyaad, a television series by Ramesh Sippy. Thrilled at the fact that he might possibly get to meet and work with the film director, Balki applied for the job without even knowing about the existence of advertising agencies. Balki, then 23, was hired as a trainee at Mudra, now known as DDB Mudra, where his passion for advertising gradually took shape.
Balki worked with Mudra for seven years before he joined Lowe Lintas in 1996. The Balki-led Lintas occupied a leading position in the country’s advertising industry thanks to its innovative campaigns including those for Lifebuoy, Hindustan Unilever, Idea and Havell’s. In the two decades that he’s been with the agency, the ad-man climbed the ranks — from the agency’s national creative director to its chairman and chief creative officer in 2008, and finally to being named the group chairman of MullenLowe Lintas last year. And, last year, when the agency was regrouped as the MullenLowe Lintas Group, Balki’s ambitious and progressive streak emerged yet again when he ingeniously split the group into Lowe Lintas and Mullen Lintas, its advertising division and independent creative agency respectively.
But even during his early days of conceptualising breakthrough ideas, Balki confesses to have always had film-making on his mind. In fact, he had been working on a Lifebuoy advertisement, when the idea behind his first film, Cheeni Kum (2007), struck. Once Bachchan and Tabu agreed to work on the film, Balki scripted each scene to suit both actors. Two years later, he wrote the script for and directed the soul-stirring Paa (2009), his second film that also stars Bachchan and that won four National Awards. After producing English Vinglish in 2012, he made his directorial comeback with Shamitabh in 2015.
Juggling the pressures that comes with the ad and film worlds sounds like no easy task. Nor could it have been a breeze for an ad film-maker to transition to the silver screen. But Balki believes in the efficient utilisation of time and confesses to have had meetings on set to meet client expectations. When asked about weaving ideas onto the big screen in an interview with Moneycontrol, he says, “Film is communication. It’s how you communicate a story. There are certain things you take for granted when you’re telling a story. But for it to reach people, it’s like an algorithm. You may think lateral in the beginning, but then you have got to be linear to communicate the laterality. You may not have to say anything, but it’s about the one thing that you can say that communicates everything else.” On the constant challenge of yo-yoing between 30-second and two-hour stories, Balki says in an article in The Telegraph, “It’s the same thing actually. It’s the same audience that watches a film as well as an ad…just the structure and the grammar of the mediums are different.”
When one looks at Balki’s repertoire of work, be it in the field of advertising or in the film industry, it’s evident that he is a master when it comes to communication, with an uncanny ability to capture familiar emotions and to present them in a light framework and at a relevant time. A little known fact though is the fact that he never watches his films or his ads once they are out in the public domain. As he told Man’s World magazine, “I change the channel if any of my ads come on. I am so embarrassed. It is like seeing yourself in the mirror. I think I am grotesque and I am often scared by my reflection. Your work is a reflection of you, and I am riddled with embarrassment always.”
Image Credits: Getty
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