Ad man and feature filmmaker R. Balki tells Bhumika K. that in Indian cinema the actor is definitely bigger than the character

His ads make sure you don't switch channels between programmes. You've also enjoyed his films if you're as much of an Amitabh Bachchan fan as he is. The same guy who came up with the “Daag achche hain” concept for a washing powder, also turned the Indian love story on its head with the May-December romance “Cheeni Kum”. R. Balakrishnan, better known in the ad and film world as R. Balki, is now in the process of giving Sridevi's acting career a breath of fresh air.

He's producing the much-awaited “English Vinglish”, Sridevi's large screen comeback, written and directed by his wife, Gauri Shinde.“My wife wrote the story with certain experiences in mind…it's an ode to her mother. It's a woman-oriented subject and needs a certain sensitivity in how it's made. I loved the script so much, I just wanted the film to be between us,” is how Balki explains his entry into the Hindi film industry as producer.

Balki, who's the chairman and chief creative officer of ad-agency Lowe Worldwide, was in Bangalore recently to speak to college students at ‘Expressions 2012', the annual seminar on journalism and mass communication organised by Commits. Ad guys never fail to charm with their talk, and if the students at the seminar lapping up his every word were anything to go by, Balki was Chief Charmer. Playing clips of his advertisements, Balki spoke of the power of advertising, of saying so much without saying it all. And how the same ad can be stretched into an entire movie.

It's all out in the open — that Balki is a big fan, both of music composer Ilayaraja and Amitabh Bachchan — a combination that made his maiden film “Cheeni Kum” in 2007 and then again his “Paa” in 2009, great successes with the audience.

It is also now part of Bollywood legend that Balki writes the script keeping in mind particular actors, and always gets them to star in those roles. “In Indian cinema, an actor has assumed a role larger than that of the character he plays. So you start thinking on those terms. Auro (the character of a 13-year-old that AB played in ‘Paa') is still Amitabh Bachchan at 13 — he's witty, intelligent, sarcastic — everything that Amitabh is. You and I can't change it,” is Balki's reason for fitting a script to star. He continues: “My desire is to work with Amitabh Bachchan so I will write for him. Shah Rukh Khan also has an image associated with him and it's a strong one, Aamir Khan is still Aamir Khan, even if he is playing a college student. The characters can't be actor-neutral and we love it. It's a bonus we as a country have.”

All this Balki says over phone, as the high-flier who zips into the seminar zips out to meet his mother who lives in Bangalore. “I'm a Bangalorean. We're Tamilians who've lived here all our life. I've spent 34 years of my life in Bangalore. It's only in the last 13 years that I've been in Mumbai. I guess my association with Bangalore figures in me as a person, and influences me. Bangalore has always been cosmopolitan in outlook and I'm comfortable with my Hindi, Tamil and Kannada. It may rob you of the kind of cultural richness that you would have if you were born in a city like Chennai, but it is replaced with another richness — a far more easy going, fuss-free attitude, which reflects in the way I think.”

A product of Frank Anthony Public School and Christ College, Balki has fond memories of the restaurants and landmarks in the city, and “of lanes I've walked in depression” when he was quite undecided about his career. “Theatres like Lido, Galaxy, Lavanya and Lakshmi, and Kannada, Tamil and Telugu films are all part of my memories,” he laughs. “I love Kannadiga food; I love akki rotti and bisi bele bhath and ask my mother to make Kannadiga saaru when I visit.”

While he straddles both worlds — of ad and feature filmmaking — with ease, Balki says “I love advertising. It's like solving a problem; it's addictive. Unless you have a fantastic story to tell, making a feature film is too laborious a process.” That, coming from a man who claims he's never worked on a single crossword in his life! Speaking earlier at the seminar, Balki spoke of how advertising is one of the most insecure professions. “You don't know where your next idea is coming from. It can kill you or make you. It's just a game and you keep playing.”

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012