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Alyque Padamsee, the showman who made the Liril girl sing

Theatre, sex and the Zeigarnik Effecthow the adman and thespian changed the face of Indian advertising

The Advertising Club of Mumbai called Padamsee the ‘Advertising Man of the Century’.
The Advertising Club of Mumbai called Padamsee the ‘Advertising Man of the Century’.

Alyque Padamsee was a man who played many roles. The Mumbai icon, who died aged 87 on 17 November, is probably best known internationally for his portrayal of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi. He was a visionary of the stage, having acted in and directed over 70 productions, infusing new breath in the city’s English theatre scene with plays such as Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and Death Of A Salesman. He was also an outspoken activist and philanthropist. But his biggest achievements have undoubtedly been in advertising, which he revolutionized during his 14 years as the chief executive of Lintas (now known as MullenLowe Lintas Group). For many outside the field, the flamboyance of his later years might have eclipsed his essential contribution to Indian advertising: he was one of the first creative directors to go on to head an Indian ad agency.

“In the 1970s, there was no difference between Madison Avenue and Indian advertising, all the agencies were run by babus with their original Mad Men style vodkas, cigars and pipes," says K.V. Sridhar, founder of creative outfit HyperCollective, who was hired by Padamsee as a creative director at Lintas in 1992. Sridhar is the author of 30 Second Thrillers (2016), a book about India’s most loved commercials. “Alyque turned that around and brought in respect for creativity. He taught everyone to look for answers in life insights and observations rather than foreign advertising. Our culture is unique, our problems are unique, so we needed to find our own language for advertising," he adds.

Padamsee’s Lintas was at the vanguard of the Indian advertising industry, creating successful campaigns that connected with the aspirations of an emerging Indian middle class. In 1974, he created his most iconic commercial for Liril, featuring a carefree Karen Lunel clad in a green bikini under a Kodaikanal waterfall. Screened in cinema halls across the country, the ad became a sensation, with the campaign continuing almost unchanged—apart from the models—till 2009. The ad’s trademark La Lala La jingle remains evocative, decades after its initial release.

Kavita Chaudhary’s Lalitaji—the pragmatic Indian housewife based on Padamsee’s mother—made Surf detergent a household name and introduced India to the difference between “achee cheez aur sasti cheez (good things and cheap things)". And then there was the sensual campaign for Kama Sutra featuring Marc Robinson and Pooja Bedi, which helped break the taboo around sex and desire at a time when the only other condom ads—for the government’s Nirodh brand—were more likely to kill the libido entirely than encourage safe sex. Incidentally, when Doordarshan refused to run the ad for being too bold, Padamsee reportedly told the broadcaster’s director that the ad had to show sex because “condoms are for sex, not for blowing balloons."

Spanning decades, these campaigns varied in style and medium, but they all had one quality in common. They were impossible to ignore.

“He had this uncanny ability to recognize the X-factor. Something that he believed could create intrigue and attract extra attention. He called it the Zeigarnik Effect (referring to a phenomenon identified by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik)," says Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative director of BBDO India, who worked under Padamsee and then Lintas creative head Kersy Katrak from 1989-99. “I think this instinct came from a deeper place. It defines Alyque Padamsee the man, and his work. It’s like he is telling the world ‘You can’t ignore me, you won’t be able to forget me’."

Made for television

That philosophy found its fullest expression when Indian advertising made its way to television. Padamsee was the first to recognize that television had the potential to revolutionize Indian advertising, convincing companies like Hindustan Unilever to invest in TV commercials.

“He saw very quickly that once television goes national, brands will emerge. Till then we didn’t really have brands, we had products," says Sridhar, adding that Lintas was the first agency to start creating commercials for television. “A lot of other agencies were also trying to adapt to television, but they were almost making print ads or cinema ads in a TV format. He was the one who brought in close-up shots, and the idea that you have to show as well as tell."

“Alyque was a theatre person and everything that he did was theatrical," adds George Kovoor, group creative director, OgilvyOne Worldwide. “Print is a very one-dimensional medium. It was just too small for him, to contain him. And I think he needed a much larger canvas and space, so TV was perfect for him."

Padamsee’s penchant for dramatic flair wasn’t just restricted to the commercials he created, but also extended to the way he ran the agency. Sridhar remembers how every client presentation was carefully planned and rehearsed down to the last detail. Padamsee would send a team to the client’s office for a recce, gathering information on everything from the size and dimension of the room to the lighting and location of plug points.

Thou shalt innovate

One of his and Katrak’s experiments within the agency was the special projects unit, headed by Paul and Neville D’Souza. At the time, Lintas was divided into five independent units, with four catering to a wide clientele. The fifth—the special projects unit—was set up to compete with the rest of the agency’s creative directors. Paul and D’Souza would travel to branches all across the country, working on parallel campaigns for the same clients.

“It was the original social experiment in search of a better creative product, his way of creating internal competition so that everyone would run faster," says Paul. “Alyque was always looking for something he’d never seen or heard before...he wanted the future to be born in Lintas, and he created a fertile ground for it."

Not all clients took to the Padamsee method. His stubbornness to do things his own way often led to heated debates. There are legendary stories of him not just refusing to make changes to commercials, but burning the film in his office. A strict disciplinarian with a plus size ego, his unwillingness to compromise on the creative product rubbed off on everyone who worked with him. Sridhar remembers a heated argument with Cadbury’s when he demanded a production budget for a print ad that was almost twice the campaign’s entire media budget. When Padamsee found out, he just patted Sridhar on the back and offered his assistance, saying, “Just go and do a great campaign."

“Alyque made you realize what it meant to feel deeply about your work," says Paul, who once threatened to jump out of a window if a client didn’t approve of his idea. “You may not be a pure artist, it is after all commercial art. But you are entitled to your point of view and you can make it emphatically."

Padamsee groomed a new generation of innovative storytellers, including the late Anand Halve, K.S. Chakravarthy, Sonal Dabral, Rahul DaCunha, and many more. Many of them have gone on to have fantastically successful careers in advertising, film and theatre. And perhaps that will be Padamsee’s most lasting legacy.

“Alyque didn’t just create memorable and iconic advertising," says Kovoor. “He also helped nurture memorable and creative people."

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