The Bollywood film maker and advertising creative talks LBB’s Natasha Patel through his illustrious career to date
A search online for the name ‘Ram Madhvani’ will bring up a plethora of articles relating to the director’s hit ‘Neerja’ which picked up accolades around India for its emotional script. However, Ram is also a successful advertising creative in his own right and has been key in directing and producing the hilarious Happy Dent commercials that are known the world round for being so unique, and have even bagged him Cannes awards. The film maker is also a series creator and has had success with Indian crime-thriller Aarya which released on Disney+ Hotstar to rave reviews and an Emmy nomination for best drama series.
As he turns his sights on the gaming world and expands his production house Equinox Films, LBB’s Natasha Patel spoke to Ram about all things Bollywood, the ‘big ad world’ and what inspired him to be a film maker.
LBB> Tell us about your early years growing up in India and the moment you realised a career in creativity was one for you.
Ram> I grew up in a small town in Maharashtra where my family had a textile mill and a farm, and because there were no English speaking schools there I went to a boarding school in Panchgani. From the age of 16, I was the only guy in school who if anybody asked what you want to be when you grow up, I would raise my hand and say, “I want to be a filmmaker”.
I think that was one of the reasons was that in Barsi, where my parents had moved, there were four theatres named after the Mangeshkar sisters: Lata, Asha, Meena and Usha. Because my family knew some of the theatre owners, even if it was a full house, I was given a chair and popcorn. To me, it was like being in the best place in the world. Being in the cinema was like being back in the womb, because you felt that you were in this kind of amniotic fluid hypnosis and you had forgotten who you were. It was a place where all my troubles as a kid seem to disappear.
Also, when I was in boarding school, we used to have the 16-millimetre films that used to burn and there was a certain smell that came from this. The smell of burning film intoxicated me when I was in school. This combination of being in the theatre, along with watching movies in the assembly hall made me want to become a filmmaker from the time I was 16.
LBB> How did you hone your craft once you decided what you wanted to do?
Ram> I went to college and did theatre. My family used to say, “It's best not to join the big bad world of cinema.” Then, my brother was in diamonds in New York, and he said, come and work with me, so I went to New York and my brother paid for my NYU course.
When I came back everybody said, “He's too passionate. He really wants to become a filmmaker. Let him be”, but then they said, “You can't join the big bad world of films. Why don't you join the big ad world.” I did all the usual rounds, asking people for a job and then with the help of my middle brother I became a trainee with my guru Sumantra Ghosal who had a company called Equinox Films and after a couple of years I was about to go to the Film Institute in Pune when Sumantra offered me a partnership. And now many years later Sumantra makes documentaries and other kinds of films and my wife, Amita and I, we own Equinox.
LBB> How did you go from ‘the big bad world of ads’ to Bollywood?
Ram> Some years ago, there was an idea that came into my head based around a form of Indian semi classical music called Thumri. In Thumri songs, a singer is singing a line that is sung with seven or eight different emotions. So I said, if this can happen to music, why can't it happen in cinema? And I made a feature film that had a woman who was pregnant, and the baby was not her husband's. When she tells the husband, he reacts in nine different ways. These different emotional reactions to one situation, became my first feature film, which was called ‘Let's Talk’. It was in English and it was an indie experimental movie.
When I made my first film, it went to Locarno and then I made my second film, Neerja, which was a Hindi commercial film. The film took me some 14 years to get to because while offers came my way, I continued advertising which is my first love and my first passion. When Neerja happened it took us into the National Awards and the Filmfare awards, and that opened doors because then I think the Hindi film industry woke up and said, this guy not only knows what he’s doing but he’s made a film that’s got a good return of investment. Neerja was one of the highest returns of investment that year.
So the first thing that people did is they sniffed me out and they said, his first film was an experimental kind of film, but the second film, he's reached out to the people, and that opened some doors.
LBB> Let’s talk about Neerja, it’s a biographical thriller based on the hijacking of the Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi.
Ram> When I grew up, Neerja Bhanot was in advertising but I never got to work with her. Once I decided on the film we went and met Neerja's family in Chandigarh with actress Sonam Kapoor, writer Saiwyn Quardras and Atul Kasbekar and Shanti Sivaram the co-producer team, but there was no script at that time. We all went to meet the family to get their permission and their blessing and I met Neerja’s mother. When I met her, that's when I realised what this film was about - how can a parent overcome the loss of their child. It became a mother daughter story about a mother who overcomes the loss of a child.
On our first day of shooting Borivali, I got Aamir Khan to come and bless us and Sonam said to him, “Ram is making another experimental film and look he is shooting with four cameras”. Aamir said, “No, he's making a commercial film in an experimental way.” That was the journey from Let's Talk which was an experimental film in an experimental way. Neerja became a commercial film made in an experimental way.
LBB> Speaking of Aamir Khan, he asked you to direct a song for his film Taare Zaamen Par, what was it like doing that?
Ram> When Aamir asked me, I was wanting to work with him. He asked me to make a song for ‘Taare Zamen Par’ because he was running out of time when he was shooting. He was shooting in Panchgani where I grew up, so it was a big deal for me. I must say it was one of the great experiences of my life because he was shooting next door with another DOP for another song, but he never even came to check what I was shooting once I told him this is where I’m going, this is what I’m doing - he was fully trusting.
LBB> I know you recently did an advert for AirTel, how is it switching between films and ads?
Ram> I switch my mindset out of fear. Whenever I'm doing advertising, I tell people I'm not doing a feature. I say I'm not free because I've got another ad because then they think that you're not interested in advertising which is not true. I’m desperately interested in advertising. But because sometimes I am doing these other things too, which I want to do and which helps my work in advertising. A lot of the way that I work today is because of the fact that I could practice my abilities in advertising.
The last two years have been extremely busy for us, in January this year, I took a month off after a long, long time. During covid we were blessed because I did some eight ads in the year. I did the TV series ‘Aarya’ season one and two in the last three years which got an Emmy nomination. I also made the feature film Dhamaka too.
LBB> What are your hopes and plans for the future?
Ram> I would like very much to continue doing advertising. While that’s going on I’m working on a series now called ‘The Waking of a Nation’ which is based on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. What happened after the massacre was a commission called the Hunter Commission, so that's six-episode series is based on that.
There's Equinox which has three producers and five directors for commercials. And then there is Ram Madhvani films, in which my wife and I have another series and another film being produced . We want to be known as a production house that does ads, films, series etc and we also have started a mobile game which is in a company that we have now called Equinox Virtual.