Role Models Society

Commercials are increasingly turning to senior citizens, because everyone listens when granny speaks

82-year-old Saroja Raman (centre) in the latest Tanishq ad.

82-year-old Saroja Raman (centre) in the latest Tanishq ad.

Amid the glittering gold and bedazzling brides in the latest Tanishq ad, you catch brief glimpses of her, but they are glimpses that stay with you. Saroja Raman, 82, in a pattu sari, dons a pair of dark glasses, her white hair tied back in a clip, laughing with a bridal group as they all pose for a photograph.

Commercials are nothing new for Chennai-based Saroja; she has been appearing in them for over two decades, and it started, she says, completely by accident. Some 20 years ago, when she was babysitting a friend’s child on the sets of Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal in Ooty, she was asked to play a small role when the woman who had been cast for the scene did not show up. “I don’t know how to act,” she had said then, but was persuaded to do it. “I thought this was a one-time thing — I had no connection with cinema at all,” but soon, many offers began coming her way for advertisements.

The grandmother of six and great-grandmother of four lives alone in an apartment adorned with photographs of her children, and she keeps a collection of albums documenting her career. Saroja was a homemaker until her career took off, and she has now appeared in more than 250 advertisements for products ranging from silk saris to her latest, a food app. She has travelled extensively to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kerala and across Tamil Nadu for shoots, and has enjoyed every minute of it. The money wasn’t very important to her. “I did not do it for the money then, and I still don’t,” she says.

Saroja is one of a growing number of senior citizens who have been exploring the world of modelling and acting, a career often beginning after retirement, and for many of them, with no prior experience.

Memorable storytelling

In 35 years, senior model coordinator and casting director Thaara Umesh went from seeing just one elderly woman model in print advertisements to dozens now in television, digital ads and films. “Earlier, we had to beg people to come in and model, but now, senior citizens want to do it. They know that it’s not a full-time job and it gives them a chance to get out into the world, to meet new people and earn some money,” she says.

The advertising industry has indeed seen a shift over the last decade — from only using glamorous models, movie stars and cricketers to endorse products, to ordinary people and senior citizens, many of them unknown faces. “The focus has shifted from beauty alone to storytelling that touches an emotional chord,” says Deepan Ramachandran, who has worked in the ad industry for 14 years and is the founder of Chennai-based agency Mind Your Language. He has seen a rise in the number of senior citizens in commercials over the years. “And senior citizens help in great storytelling — they make for very memorable ads.”

Janaki Jayaraman

Janaki Jayaraman

The first time Janaki Jayaraman, now 78, appeared on a set to shoot for an ad around a decade ago, she was anxious: “I had taken part in school plays but that was 50 years ago. I wanted to do well and I was asking myself, can I do it?” She went ahead and did it, and hasn’t looked back since. A homemaker, Janaki had lost her husband in 2010, and was, at that time, looking for a way to beat back memories as well as gain some financial independence. She has now been part of a number of commercials, most memorably for Preethi home appliances, where she has played an amiable grandmother, an intimidating one, and an athletic one.

In 2018, there was more excitement: Janaki was cast as the grandmother in actor Vijay’s hit film, Sarkar . “That was a wonderful experience. From Preethi paati , I became known as Vijay paati ,” she laughs. The money helps: the mother of three and grandmother of six and great-grandmother of three does not want to depend on her family.

Freshness factor

What works, says casting director Sharanya Subramaniam of Sharanya Spots Talent, is the ‘freshness factor’. Advertisements are always on the lookout for something new that will resonate with the audience. And despite little or no experience, a lot of senior citizens manage to hit just that right note. “They have no ego, they are not scared, and they listen to the director’s guidance,” she says. “And while some of them do it as a hobby, there are others who have always wanted to perform but have only managed to do so after retirement, and then there are those who may need the money.”

Interestingly, it’s not just products traditionally aimed at seniors that now use older models. From masalas to mobile phones, seniors feature in every kind of commercial. One recent Swiggy ad, for instance, features an elderly man (Naresh Gosain) opening the door for a food delivery executive. At the doorstep, he opens his gulab jamun and eats it, gorging it down with complete bliss, then goes back inside to the couch, where his wife is seated.

Naresh Gosain

Naresh Gosain

Mari Valan Inigo, assistant director, ads and films, calls this the “cuteness factor” that works for ads. For those not used to being in front of a camera, breaking the ice is important, he says. “We have to set the mood, figure out their potential and work with that. Overall, we’ve had sweet experiences with almost all the senior citizens we have worked with,” he says.

Two years ago, when Micky Singh, then 59, first appeared on set to shoot a commercial, she found it intimidating. “There are lights on your face and everybody in the studio is staring at you,” says the mother of two and grandmother of one, based in Mumbai. “I had butterflies in my stomach — there still are every time I face the camera.” But now, Micky, who was a homemaker until she began appearing in commercials, is completely hooked.

Micky Singh

Micky Singh

One of the reasons there are more senior citizens coming in now, says Kavish Sinha, founder of the casting company On My Kayroll, is purely because there are abundant opportunities — in both the advertising field and OTT platforms. Advertisements with senior citizens call for niche casting and also add “believability”: “We are conditioned to believe and take seriously what our dadis and nanis tell us,” Sinha says.

Advertising appears to still be booming business. According to Sam Balsara, founder and chairman of Madison World, a diversified communication group, the industry has almost doubled in value from ₹27,400 crore in 2011 to ₹54,200 crore in 2020. Last year, even with the pandemic, digital advertising grew by 10%.

The ad industry, though, is all about demographics, as Professor Maitrayee Chaudhuri of the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out. And senior citizens form an untapped segment for advertisers. “Marketers are discovering that senior citizens of a certain class today are an important segment, as they have purchasing power. They also watch a lot of TV, unlike the middle-class urban young,” she says, and this may be a factor in the casting of more senior citizen models.

C. Raja Ravi Varma always wanted to be in cinema. As a child artist, he both acted and sang, but ultimately turned to academics and became a doctor. After 35 years of practice, he voluntarily retired from government service last September and now wants to pursue what has always been his passion: acting and singing. “I’m completely free now and can do what I’ve always wanted to,” says the 60-year-old. Dr. Varma was part of two commercials some years ago while he was still working full-time, but says he is waiting for the right opportunity and, in the meantime, will work towards “familiarising his face”.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma

Look your best

For some, there’s a gradual transition or the merging of the advertising and cinema worlds. Dinesh Mohan is one such. Six years ago, Mohan, now 62, could not have dreamt that his life would change so dramatically. Battling depression after personal tragedies, he had become so overweight that he had been confined to his bed for a year. After losing over 60 kg beginning 2013, he began leaving the house again and taking an interest in life outside. “It was my physiotherapist, who was teaching me to walk again, who suggested I try modelling,” says Mohan, who is based in Chandigarh. “I didn’t even know modelling for seniors existed.”

Dinesh Mohan

Dinesh Mohan

On his 57th birthday, Mohan was selected at an audition in Delhi, and since then, “it’s been a crazy ride,” he says. After a number of commercials and even a ramp walk, Mohan made his debut in cinema in the Salman Khan-starrer Bharat that released in 2019; then came Happy Sardar in 2019, Saand ki Aankh also in 2019, and a role in the Rajinikanth-starrer Darbar that released early last year. Two more films, one in Tamil and one in Malayalam, are due for release. But as amazing as his career has been, it has not been, as he puts it, a cakewalk. “It’s not the easiest of jobs. It involves long hours, lots of travel and hotel stays, and a constant effort to look your best,” he says.

Perhaps that’s why cinema, while eternally appealing, doesn’t necessarily attract all senior citizen models. “I prefer commercials because they are generally one-day jobs whereas film shoots take much longer and are more taxing,” says Janaki. Senior citizen models may get paid fees ranging from under ₹10,000 to ₹25,000 per shoot, with the amount, those in the industry say, increasing with experience. Fees are still lower for them than for younger models. “Younger female models always get paid more in the industry,” says Thaara.

Is society beginning to celebrate the old? Says Prof. Chaudhuri, “For a country as large, diverse and unequal as India, this visibility of senior citizens is definitely welcome; but both those who model in commercials and those who watch them only form a small segment of society.” And ageist attitudes remain. They work both ways: the constant expectation for women to look good, and the disapproval if they look “too good”. Mohan agrees. “Age-shaming is a problem. Younger people sometimes mock older models. And society can be cruel towards older people who take trouble with their appearance and dress in trendy, stylish outfits,” he says.

S.N. Bhatt

S.N. Bhatt

The allure of strobe lights is, however, potent. “I’m mad about acting and modelling,” laughs Chennai-based S.N. Bhatt, who is in his 90s. A veteran of both cinema and advertising, beginning with the 1982 film, Moondram Pirai , Bhatt was a businessman before stepping in front of the camera and has featured in a number of commercials, including for Vasan Eye Care and Appaswamy Real Estates. His latest project, he says, is a role in the yet-to-be released movie, Vaazh , directed by Arun Prabhu. “I am still looking forward to doing more,” he says. Age, after all, is just a number.

zubeda.h@thehindu.co.in


Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 30, 2022 8:52:03 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/commercials-are-increasingly-turning-to-senior-citizens-because-everyone-listens-when-granny-speaks/article34456027.ece