In the early 1990s, whenever an ad film production house wanted to shoot a campaign with those bouncy hair-in-the-air shots, they would trek to Billoo Sandhu’s ad film production house in Worli to borrow the only trampoline there was in Mumbai. The Rs25,000 prop, left over from an ad campaign for ITC Ltd’s Gold Flake cigarettes, had been carted all the way from South Africa.
But that was then. Today, prop houses catering to the advertising industry in India offer everything from forks and spoons that sit prettily on a dining table, old picture frames, Picasso prints, retro radio sets, psychedelic lava lamps and beautiful antique furniture that could have been dragged right out of a cosy home in a Parsi colony to perfectly ripe mangoes that can be shot in the middle of December. No giant chandeliers or period props of epic serial Mahabharat, stuffed animals or shiny saas-bahu costumes here.
Keeping pace with the Rs16,000 crore advertising industry in India, prop houses have come a long way in the past two decades. They have moved out of dusty trunks in nondescript godowns to become successful businesses that cater to every prop requirement an ad production house might have.
Three establishments hold sway over the Rs1.2 crore prop industry in Mumbai which, experts say, has been growing at a modest 10% year-on-year. This includes “everyone, even the street shops at Chor Bazaar”.
But the three big players—Propability, It Ads–a prop shop and Propaganda Co.—have a lot going for them, considering they are prop shops catering to the ad film industry, 90% of which is based in Mumbai. And demand is thriving—production houses would rather pay a small fee to rent props than buy them and arrange for their storage. Props can be rented for as little as 10% of their cost price, starting as low as Rs15 for a cup and saucer.
“Film production houses have it really easy today,” says K.V. Sridhar, national creative director, Leo Burnett India Pvt. Ltd, who remembers a time when agencies had to shoot ad films eight months in advance due to the unavailability of props.
“If you had to shoot an ad for a mango drink, you had no option but to shoot it eight months in advance,” he says. The ads had to be released just before the mango season “but who is going to give you ripe mangoes in the middle of December?”
Or for that matter, a tandem cycle. “We had to fabricate one for a Taj Mahal Tea ad,” Sridhar says. This was years before the legendary Wah Taj! campaign featuring tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain.
Those were the only two options—buy it or fabricate it. The recent ad for Coca-Cola Co.’s pulpy orange juice brand, Minute Maid, used fibreglass oranges that had been bought from a place called Prop Shop in New York, 15 years ago.
Most film production houses have trunks full of stuff left over from shoots done years ago. But with rising real estate costs, they were forced to get rid of dead stock. Some production houses gave it away to employees, others held annual garage sales. One of them decided to set up a prop shop—the first catering to the Indian ad industry.
It all started in September 1989, when the partners at Equinox Films Pvt. Ltd decided to take stock of the props and knick-knacks they had collected over the years.
“It was the same everywhere,” says Troney Mathew, chief operating officer, Propability, a prop shop Equinox set up in central Mumbai. “Every production house would buy props for their shoot, and then stuff them into a trunk which would then disappear into some black hole, never to be retrieved again,” he says.
The film production house then decided to “put their stuff together”, to launch the first prop shop for the ad industry in India. A one-stop prop solution that everyone in the industry could dip into.
The other two prop shops, Propaganda Co. and It Ads–a prop shop, were subsequently set up by Bharati Pote and Sushil Shirke, respectively; both of them had worked at Propability. The rest, as they say, is history.
But the decade-long hegemony of the three shops has finally been broken as the need for one-stop prop solutions emerges in secondary ad hubs as well. Bangalore-based production house Nirvana Films, which did all the pug commercials for mobile services providers Hutch and Vodafone, launched its own prop house, Bubble Wrap, early this year. Led by Archna Balan, the prop shop caters largely to the ad industry, event managers and photographers in the city. But it hopes to specialize in sourcing props specifically for film shoots. As of now, it digs into its own collection of props—the knick-knacks accumulated over the last seven years at Nirvana Films.
This growth in the prop industry is fuelled by the changing face of Indian advertising. From the ad films of the late 1970s, which concentrated largely on product-pack shots and demos, to ads that weave stories around the great Indian middle class today, the requirements for props have changed drastically—from opulent furniture, wrought iron and glass to clean design and shapes, white props and chrome-finished goods.
“Ad films today are more realistic and that, to my mind, is the biggest challenge for prop houses,” says Abhinay Deo, film director for Ramesh Deo Productions Pvt. Ltd. “The look has to be realistic and aspirational at the same time,” he says, citing the recent ads for ICICI Prudential Life Insurance, which feature a middle-class family in a setting that is a few notches above what their target audience is used to.
No wonder then that prop shops are constantly on the lookout for props that match the changing requirements. Stock is picked up from various sources—local markets, exhibitions, Chor Bazaar, even foreign markets. “I usually go out shopping every few days. And the idea is to pick up something that can be used again and again. It is difficult to sell anything that is very unique or distinguishable,” says Pote.
Some production houses, however, do require high-end props. The use of celebrities as brand ambassadors and high-budget ad film productions has led to high-end lifestyle stores renting out furniture and props for a high fee, which includes a hefty deposit. The stores usually consider the item sold if it is damaged in any way. Lifestyle stores such as Good Earth, Home Décor and Red, Blue and Yellow are known to give out their products for shoots.
“Today, the ad film budget for any average product ranges from Rs40 lakh to Rs4 crore,” says Sridhar of Leo Burnett. “So, people don’t think twice about paying Rs1 lakh for a designer sofa, it is just a blip on the budget,” he says.
The only thing that dissuades them is the lack of storage space. “Even though we can afford it with such big film budgets, I would much rather rent it out,” says Deo. Not to mention the fact that more than 80% of ad films produced in India today are run-of-the-mill productions made on limited budgets. “At no point are these prop shops going to go out of business, there are more than enough production houses that are looking for a good deal,” he says.
Shirke of It Ads–a prop shop is trying to fill that gap. He recently opened a new shop a few doors away. The shop stores high-end props that include miniature cars, chrome artefacts and faux flowers, and modern props such as a snazzy radio from Singapore to suit such settings. The props are slightly more expensive to hire and are sourced mostly from weekend markets at places such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
As for random props such as trampolines, there will always be a demand for them. “It (the trampoline) has more than paid for itself over the last 15 years,” says Sandhu of Cutting Edge Pictures, who recently lent the prop to photographer Atul Kasbekar for a shoot. And as the joke in the industry goes, “The trampoline still pays for my lifestyle,” he laughs.
Chief operating officer: Troney Mathew
Propability—set up by film directors Ram Madhvani, Sumantra Ghoshal and Ayesha Sayani in September 1989—was the first prop shop to cater specifically to the Indian ad industry. Its stores, at Famous Studio in central Mumbai, stock everything a house, office or school space might need. One shop holds the essentials, including crockery, metal artefacts, paintings, even a gas stove; another, a few steps away, holds more than 50 lamps in different shapes and sizes. The 700 sq. ft godown at Mazgaon has furniture pieces, some with multiple upholstery options. The company also rents out lights and equipment. Troney Mathew, who started in the accounts department at Equinox Films Pvt. Ltd, never imagined he would enjoy his job—which entails picking out props—as much as he does.
IT ADS–A PROP SHOP
Proprietor: Sushil Shirke
It Ads–a prop shop launched in 1999. Having worked briefly at Propability, Sushil Shirke decided to try his hand at the business. He secured a loan by mortgaging his house and launched his own props business. Over the years, he has developed a keen sense of market trends and usually tracks global trends by scouring international magazines on his 2-hour journey from home to work. Recently, he launched another shop, just a few doors away from the first, to cater to big budget films. He usually sources his props from exhibitions, sales and weekend markets, and sometimes even orders from furniture and lifestyle chains such as Ikea.
Proprietor: Bharati Pote
In 1996, when Bharati Pote launched Propaganda Co., she operated out of a 180 sq. ft apartment in Mazgaon. Now, 12 years later, Propaganda occupies a 2,000 sq. ft space in Worli which stocks everything—from sofa sets and antique furniture to psychedelic lava lamps.
Pote honed her skills during a stint at Propability in 1992, where she was in charge of sourcing props and keeping track of stocks. After taking a break to have a baby, she set up her own prop shop, taking a loan to finance the venture. Today, business is thriving; and Propaganda props are in demand as ad film-making grows both in volumes and quality.Pote even gets furniture rent requests from families for special occasions.
Proprietor: Nirvana Films
Led by Archna Balan
Set up early this year by Nirvana Films, Bubble Wrap is the first prop house catering to the advertising industry in Bangalore. Having started operations with props collected over seven years by Nirvana Films, the company hopes to land more work as consultants who can source or procure props for other production houses.
It is currently working out of an old bungalow, but hopes to move into a new office soon.