The Stranger In The Mirror is an autobiography of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, a National Award-winning director known for for films like the iconic Rang De Basanti, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and the recently-released Toofaan. Chronicling his journey as a filmmaker, it comprises several first-person accounts from well-known faces from Hindi cinema and advertising. Alongside Mehra, the memoir is penned by Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta, who hails from the world of marketing and content writing. She is an English-language author, having previously written Rescript Your Life.
Below is an excerpt from the book capturing Mehra’s early days as an ad filmmaker. Asked to direct a set of BPL ads by ad guru Abhinav Dhar, he was left jaw-dropped when he learnt who the actor starring in it would be: Amitabh Bachchan. Celebrity endorsements, back in the 1990s, weren’t common. In fact, they were looked down upon. Mehra even asked Bachchan – his idol – to drop out of the video. What followed thereafter was a bond that not only pushed his boundaries as a filmmaker, but further paved the way for him directing the music videos of Aby Baby – a then first-of-its-kind pop album by Bachchan.
Even though getting the opportunity to shoot the BPL Sanyo ad with Amit ji was a cathartic experience, I was not only creatively nervous, but also gripped with an uneasy conscience.
‘I’m really excited, but I don’t think you should do this ad,’ I said.
Mr. Bachchan looked at me and smiled indulgently.
I continued, ‘You have died and come back from death in real life.’ I was referring to 1982, when this great man met with a near-fatal accident on the sets of the film Coolie (1983) that landed him in the hospital battling for his life. It is believed that along with the doctors, it was the entire country that brought him back to life with their heartfelt tears and prayers. I was among the millions praying.
I have no idea what overcame me or where my presumption that I needed to protect this colossus came from. I insisted, ‘All our lives in cinema halls, we’ve seen you 60 feet tall, you have controlled us, entertained us, mesmerized us. But on television, you will be 6 inches tall. I could insult you by merely changing the channel. How can I shoot these TV commercials?’
I tried very hard to dissuade him from doing the ad. But his mind was clear.
‘Rakeysh, this will be the future. You will see more and more celebrities endorsing products. Don’t worry on that account,’ his baritone rang.
However, sure enough, Abhinav understood the sentiments behind what I was saying and his brilliant copy writer Syed Usman laboured on the script until we got what felt right. In 1996, we worked on a set of five commercials; the first one was meant to ease his entry into the world of product endorsements. It began with him saying something like, ‘Shayad aap mujhey TV par dek kar hairaan hongey’ (You may be surprised to find me on TV).
He goes on to say that he has been offered to endorse BPL products and while he has done theatre, sang songs, acted in movies, there was no harm in trying this new thing out. What followed in the next four commercials was ground breaking. One had Amitabh Bachchan emerging from the escalator of Piccadilly Circus Tube Station, earnestly vocalizing that he was seeking an Indian name that had a reputation outside India.
As he moves away, a signage with BPL appears right behind him, making a bold statement. That was the Indian brand he was looking for. I had a vision to employ some breakthrough technology. In the next commercial, there was the real Amitabh Bachchan walking through his own retro films and interacting with his own iconic characters from Shahenshah, Deewar, Anand and many more.
Kehte hain ki international naam ho to sab kuchch chalta hai. Humme wo baat kahan! Hai koi Hindustani naam jisme koi dum ho… Kuch wazan ho… Kuch baat ho? Suna hai woh naam B se shuru hota hai… (It is believed that only foreign brands work. We’re not up to the mark. Is there an Indian name that can stand up to the world? They say there is one and the name starts with B [a pun on B for Bachchan and B for BPL].)
I decided to spend the last penny available to ensure the highest quality and took the final post production – colour grading and VFX – to London, the hub of the world advertising back then, to achieve something new. Our VFX supervisor, Paul Sims, was from a leading post-production house in London. Bharathi and I rented an apartment near Soho square for four months to finish the job. I was very clear from the beginning that our advertisement had to be at par with, if not better than, the best in the world.
Coincidentally, Amit ji happened to be in London while I was there. One day, right in the middle of our work, Amit ji dropped by to say hello and asked:
AB: What are you doing later in the evening?
Me: I’m available.
Of course I was!
Amit ji took me to a recording studio where, along with Bally Sagoo, he was creating an album. I heard some of the music; it was path-breaking fusion to say the least.
Amit ji and I were eager to cross the threshold of what we had done before. Perhaps that’s why I was able to bond with a legend two decades and several paeans senior to me. Later, I realized that innovation was a constant for Amit ji. He’s a visionary with tremendous foresight. In those times, in his mind, he was imagining the future and wanted to be part of shaping it. In 1996, he founded Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd. (ABCL), the first ever attempt to corporatize the Indian film industry. I remember thinking how full of energy he was, always forthcoming, always thinking at least a 100 steps ahead of anyone else.
After wrapping up the BPL commercial, I returned to India, when I got a call from Rosy Singh (Amit ji’s dependable executive secretary) for a meeting. Here’s how that went.
AB: Remember the music studio in London?
AB: Here’s what we created.
He proceeded to play me some songs.
AB: I’ve composed Babuji’s (Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s) poetry in my own voice with Bally Sagoo. Maybe we should do a music video. What do you think?
Mentally, I started compiling a list of the best pop video directors from the US and London who were best suited to make such a video. Each song deserved out-of-the-box thinking!
He prodded me, exploring my thoughts.
AB: What are the songs you like?
I shortlisted three: The first was the rustic ‘Eir Bir Phatte’, which brought alive folk storytelling in Awadhi. The sound was new and unheard, thanks to Bally Sagoo’s modern reggae flavour. Then the lilting romantic ballad ‘Sone Machari’ and finally, the intoxicating lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi and ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ in AB’s own voice.
AB: Good choices. Will you direct the songs?
Me: I have never done music videos, but why not?
AB: Then let’s begin with ‘Eir Bir Phatte’.
Suffice to say, we proceeded to make a dent in the universe with the album Aby Baby. India had never seen anything like ‘Eir Bir Phatte’ before.
I needed a choreographer who could think differently. Young Raju Sundaram’s work had blown my mind in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay. For the first time in India, we brought in professional, international dancers from the London School of Dance. For the second song ‘Kabhi Kabhi’, I took a totally different approach. The elegant and accomplished danseuse and national-award winning Shobana Chandrakumar played AB’s muse, with him as a sculptor, trying to recreate her poise and grace in stone. ‘Sone Machari’ was a rustic track set to rhythm in rap style. To my mind, it was a truly unique song but we never made a video for it.
The album released in 1996, with BPL credited as sponsors (printed on the album sleeve). I was very nervous and then realized so was Amit ji. Thankfully, it worked out well. Every television wanted to play ‘Eir Bir Phatte’. It started a trend of fusion music: music videos for independent songs that were out of the feature film space and for a world music vibe. For the first time, a collaboration with international dancing talent was showcased and it blew everybody’s mind. The bar had been raised. I had lived up to what I wanted to create for my idol. As for Amit ji, he normally hits the ball out of the park.
Edited excerpts from The Stranger in the Mirror by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra with Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta with permission from Rupa Publications.