New Delhi: “Are you the Vodafone couple?”
This is the question that veteran Bharatanatyam dancers and Padma Bhushan awardees Shanta and Vannadil Pudiyaveettil Dhananjayan are answering ever since they appeared in the new Vodafone Supernet 4G ads. The advertising series that premiered in April during the Indian Premier League (IPL) is created by Ogilvy & Mather and directed by Prakash Varma of Nirvana Films. The campaign will be aired throughout the IPL season.
Known as the dancing couple of India, the duo now has a fan-following beyond South India or the dancing circuit which knows them so well. “Just yesterday, a passerby in our neighbourhood stopped to ask if we were the couple from the Vodafone ad,” said an elated Dhananjayan.
The instant recognition is usually followed by generous compliments, “Mostly people come and tell us that we are very cool and cute in that ad,” smiles Shanta adding that the people from our dance fraternity are so happy to see them in a different avatar.
“They keep telling us that we are such good actors,” she beams.
In their 70s, ‘The Dhananjayans’ as they are popularly known, are featured as the uber-cool elderly couple (Asha and Bala) in the campaign, chilling in Goa on their second honeymoon after 35-years of marriage. From getting a tattoo to parasailing, the adorable duo is not just adventurous but is also shown to be keeping pace with technology (with a little help from 4G Vodafone network) using Facebook live, Google maps, video calling and photo-sharing features.
Dhananjayan auditioned for the role after their son Satyajit was approached by a friend from Ogilvy asking if his parents would be interested to act in the ads. The director of the campaign Prakash Varma instantly liked their chemistry and agreed to film the campaign with them.
“This is our first big-scale national advertising campaign and it’s been an absolute adventure ride for us. Apart from the experience, we also got a chance to visit Goa for the first time,” said 78-year old Dhananjayan who has earlier worked with South Indian film director Rajiv Menon for a Nerolac Paints ad for the Kerala market.
The couple shot the campaign in six-days at various locations in Goa. A series of six different ad spots feature them enjoying different activities in Goa. In one of the ads Dhananjayan is shown looking for the famous fort featured in Aamir Khan starrer blockbuster Dil Chahta Hai on a scooter while another ad spot shows him getting a tattoo in a Goan shack. Meanwhile, his wife Shanta not only parasails in one of the ads she also shakes a leg in true Goan style during a ferry ride.
“Unlike in the ads, we wear traditional clothes—saree, veshti (dhoti) and jippa (kurta). While I get to wear sarees along with salwar suits in the ads but he had to wear shorts and shirts which was outside his comfort zone. But we were open to experimentation and instead of imposing ourselves on the characters, we tried to bring out how Bala and Asha should look on screen,” said Shanta, 73.
As Bharatanatyam dancers, acting is not an unfamiliar territory for the couple who feel that dancing is an exaggerated form of acting although ad films require more natural and subtle expressions.
For the couple who has been married for more than 50 years and has been performing together for over 60 years, working together in the ad wasn’t a new experience. They have literally grown up together while learning classical dance form at Chennai based art and culture academy Kalakshetra. Shanta, who hails from a well-to-do Indian family which migrated from Kerala to Malaysia, arrived at Kalakshetra as an 8-year old in 1952, a year before Dhananjayan.
Dhananjayan saw the young Shanta for the first time at the Theosophical Society gardens when he went to meet the founder of the academy Rukmini Devi. She was the first girl Dhananjayan was introduced to when he, a village boy, who knew nothing except Malayalam, arrived at Kalakshetra. Shanta was a serious girl totally devoted to her dance but she secretly made up her mind, at the age of 12, to marry Dhananjayan.
The couple got married in 1966 and has two sons. The elder son Sanjay works with Ogilvy and lives with his wife in New York, US. The younger one, Satyajit is an automobile photographer and live with his wife and son in Chennai.
Away from the glitz and glamour, Dhananjayans lead a busy life performing, promoting as well as teaching dance in Adyar, Chennai where they run dance school Bharata Kalanjali which was started in 1968. While Bharatanatyam is the essence of their recitals, they have a penchant for innovation. They have performed the Ramayana with neutral costumes, Kathakali without the traditional costumes and the highly acclaimed Adventures of Mowgli. In the past they have collaborated with renowned sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar and New York dancer Jacques D’Amboise among others.
Although they are celebrities in their own right, the couple leads a simple life. Shanta, for example, gets up at 6 in the morning and heads straight to the kitchen to whip up idli and sambhar for breakfast.
“Once my maid comes at 8:30 am, I handover the kitchen to her and head to the school where I teach and supervise the classes in the second half of the day. The summer months are usually a peak time because a lot of young children attend dance classes. My husband Dhananjayan is currently focusing on his writing. He often writes articles in leading dailies like The Hindu, The Times of India and The Indian Express,” she said.
They continue to perform, choreograph and direct despite their social engagements which take up their evenings during the week. In their leisure time, while Shanta loves watching good English films, Dhananjayan is usually busy watching news or reading articles. “She doesn’t like news. I like watching political debates on television news channels and I make sure to send my feedback to the editor immediately,” he proudly added.
Currently, riding on the success and the warm response to the Vodafone ad, the couple said they are open to feature in ads but only if the creative is dignified and interesting.
“It took us two weeks to find Dhananjayans. When Prakash saw their audition we were convinced that they are our Asha and Bala. They have a fantastic screen presence and a chemistry which cannot be scripted,” said Kiran Anthony, executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather.
The couple’s infectious energy and enthusiasm has certainly caught the attention of the viewers.
Razneesh Ghai, founder, Asylum Films feels that casting is the high point of the Vodafone campaign which has worked fantastically in connecting with viewers.
“The Dhananjayans have been charming audiences with their performances on the stage. Watching them carry the same enthusiasm and chemistry forward as they mingle with locals and tourists in amusing ways is an absolute delight,” he said.