Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Why Piku director Shoojit Sircar loves start-up stories

The filmmaker explains why shooting ads for e-commerce firms are much more fun than doing the same for traditional brands

It has been almost six months since Shoojit Sircar’s bittersweet family drama Piku, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, hit theatres to critical acclaim and went on to cross 100 crore in worldwide box-office collections. You would imagine Sircar, 48, basking in the directorial triumph.

Actually, he’s not. Recently, he was working on a television commercial for Zomato Media Pvt. Ltd, a restaurant search and review site. The ad is based on a father-daughter relationship—a subject he tackled in Piku, a quirky film about an old man obsessed with his bowel movements.

It was the day after Ganesh Chaturthi—a popular Hindu festival celebrated with much fanfare in Mumbai—and Sircar was busy shooting at Alexander Bungalow in Pali Hill, a popular location for films and TV shows. It is his first ad film for an e-commerce brand.

“After a long time, I’m enjoying a good performance film, where the story penetrates and speaks for itself and then obviously the product," says Sircar. “It’s an unusual story, about a daughter and her parents who are separated. It’s about the divorced father and his daughter and their interaction."

The crew on the set was taking a break for lunch. The role of the father was being played by Sircar’s old friend Saurabh Shukla, an actor known for his powerful performances in films such as Barfi! and Jolly LLB.

Sircar believes that it was the success of Piku that prompted Zomato to approach him to make the ad film.

“Zomato obviously came because of my ad background and Piku played a big role," he says. “Although the ad is not connected to the film, somewhere, the families, moods and moments are similar. This is another father-daughter moment."

Pramod Rao, a senior vice-president at Zomato, agrees: “We picked Shoojit because we wanted a very realistic feel to the ad. We were very impressed with his direction in Piku."

Rao, who was on the set to watch the ad being created, said it was the first time that the company had reached out to a third party to create a commercial. In the past, Zomato had used crowdsourcing for its communications or worked with in-house creative teams to build its television advertising strategy.

In September, Zomato raised $60 million in fresh capital from Singapore’s Temasek Holdings Pte. Ltd and existing investor Vy Capital, valuing the company at about $1 billion.

Sircar’s eight-year-old production company Rising Sun Films was first approached by advertising agency Ogilvy for the Zomato film.

“And then I met (founder) Deepinder Goyal and the entire Zomato team," says Sircar. “I was given complete freedom to make the film the way I wanted. That’s how you can see the director’s vision in the film. Otherwise, it just becomes a product story."

Rising Sun Films, co-founded with Sircar’s friend and producer Ronnie Lahiri, generates an estimated 40 crore in revenue through its ad film production business.

In his 17-year career as an ad filmmaker, Sircar has already worked on more than 350 commercials for brands, including Gujarat Tourism, Coca-Cola, Cadbury Dairy Milk, the Indian Premier League and Royal Enfield.

After the two commercials for Zomato, he is preparing to take on more work from e-commerce companies—brands he’s unwilling to name immediately.

This year, nearly 3,000 crore is likely to be spent by 56 e-commerce brands, including Zomato, on television advertising, according to estimates by television channels, e-commerce advertisers and media buyers.

And Sircar finds the new-age brands much “cooler" than traditional ones when it comes to creative liberty. He is pretty much allowed to do what he wants.

Brands such as Tata or Cadbury operate in the traditional market; they have a pure product to sell. “While in e-commerce, the only thing is there is no product, it is intangible, it’s an app," says Sircar. “So, when you have a real product, then the ownership of the makers of that product can be felt; they (owners/manufacturers) become closer to that product. So, they know the product better than me. An app I will know and I will understand. So, that’s the difference I think."

After wrapping up the Zomato ad, he is looking forward to shooting a television commercial with Amitabh Bachchan for TVS Motor and an ad for Cadbury.

There is warmth and camaraderie on Sircar’s set, with regular cups of tea and coffee being offered to the entire team. He gives the shot breakdown to his actors. He sits in front of the monitor and is quick to call “cut".

The bespectacled director, casually attired in a pair of jeans and a brown T-shirt, bustles about the set, giving instructions to his crew. He seems cool and in control.

He wasn’t always this cool and calm. He recalls having a “nervous breakdown" when he was offered a chance to direct his first television commercial for soap brand Dettol. His mentor and fellow Bengali filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar was busy with prior commitments and asked Sircar to take charge of the Dettol ad.

“It was a World Cup commercial where six to seven kids play football all across Kolkata," he recalls. “Pradeep was supposed to do it, but he was busy and the World Cup was approaching. He knew I was a footballer and in that context, he asked me to shoot the ad."

According to Sarkar, who runs the ad film production house Apocalypso Filmworks, Sircar is dependable and very hands-on. “We had figured out that he had a knack for and inclination towards direction," Sarkar said in a phone interview.

Even today, in his spare time, Sircar plays football, not just with old friends from Kolkata but also with actors such as Ranbir Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan, as part of a celebrity charity football team called Fifa Mumbai.

“What the ad did was it taught me the form, the method and also the craft (of filmmaking)," says Sircar. “Finally, what happens in filmmaking is a director’s vision. Till the time it’s shot and on the edit table, neither the client nor the agency knows what’s coming."

Sircar believes that a film often reflects one’s own experiences and life. Indeed his first three films, Yahaan (2005), Vicky Donor (2012) and Madras Cafe (2013), are testimony to that. The characters in Vicky Donor, he says, are based on real-life people.

Sircar follows the Satyajit Ray school of filmmaking. “His work is so real and without any gimmicks," he says. “The craft is supreme and simplistic."

And it is no coincidence that Sarkar uses that very description to express his love for Piku, Sircar’s biggest hit till date. “The way this story has been told, there is no dikhava, no gimmicks, no in-your-face notion about ‘look at my craft’," says Sarkar. “The sound design of the film is brilliant."

Sircar’s career trajectory from ad filmmaking to feature films is a logical progression followed by many ad professionals, including directors like Gauri Shinde (English Vinglish) and Dibakar Banerjee (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!), among others.

Sircar, who graduated from Bhagat Singh College in New Delhi with a BCom (Honours) degree, started his professional career as an accountant at the Le Meridien hotel in the capital. “I used to give salaries to people," he says.

Brands love to work with Sircar because he is cost-effective, has clarity of vision and is quick on his feet. Expect him to wrap up the 6pm shoot at least an hour in advance.

“He is one of the most production-friendly directors," says Sircar’s business partner Lahiri. “He understands what production is, his vision is very clear. That’s very important... that you understand your budget." Sircar has worked on client budgets ranging from 15 lakh to more than 1 crore.

As is evident, Sircar enjoys making performance-oriented films and, more importantly, ones that allow him the creative freedom to communicate his vision of a story. For him, the operative words are interesting characters and stories.

Advertising has become repetitive and lacks the freshness of the 1990s, he says.

“If someone makes an emotional ad today, then everyone wants to follow suit," says Sircar, who has two daughters, Ananya and Koyna, who live in Kolkata with their mother Jhuma. Sircar shuttles between Kolkata and Mumbai, but his favourite shooting location is New Delhi.

While he doesn’t have any other film lined up for release this year, he has started working on a new script with his creative muse Juhi Chaturvedi, who worked with him in Vicky Donor, for which she won a Filmfare award for best story in 2013.

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