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Opinion and Insight

Jumping the Fence: Manoj Tapadia

Offroad’s creative-turned-director on why filmmaking is a ‘complete’ form of creativity and why he never stops challenging himself

Jumping the Fence: Manoj Tapadia

Manoj Tapadia spent years listening to well-meaning advice from family, friends and colleagues. He had a great job as a senior creative director at Lowe, working on award-winning projects with Unilever. Why risk all that to try his luck as a commercial director? It’s advice he wishes that he had ignored years ago. These days he’s a successful and prolific director with Offroad Films working on brands like Unicef, Dettol, Surf and more. You won’t find this ‘highly self-critical Virgo’ boasting, though, but he has plenty of tips for frustrated creatives hoping to make the jump.

And if you only watch one of his spots, check out his highly personal and emotional HDFC film ‘Dad’.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to find out more.

LBB> In 2011 you left the agency world and jumped the fence to become a director. What triggered this move?

MT> It was a natural progression. The quest to know ‘what's next?’, to explore the art of storytelling more through moving images rather than just written words. It wasn't one specific incident that led me to take the plunge. It was more of the building curiosity and one-thing-led-to-another kind of story.

If I look back, I had actually directed a small play when I was in Grade 7. That's because I wanted to act in it. So, the direction germ was always there. It just took several years for me to realise and make that a reality in my life.

LBB> Had you been directing things while you were still in the agency world?

MT> Yes. It started at Lowe.

LBB> As a creative director you headed up big brands like Lifebuoy, working on Effie-winning projects – what are your best memories of that time?

MT> To be honest, many. But the best memories are not of the awards but of the people. Of some really mad and quirky people I happened to work with. Those memories (some of them I can't even tell here) were nothing less than laugh riots! Both Lintas and Unilever had a bunch of outstanding characters, not necessarily from the creative stream, who were totally phenomenal. What remains with me from that time are the laughs! In the end awards, money, designation etc pale in comparison to all the moments that you live. You don't realise it then but realise it much later.

LBB> How did you find the transition at first?

MT> It was pretty smooth actually. I had directed five or six films and all of them turned out quite satisfactory. One of them is still running! It was for Johns Hopkins University and NACO called Resignations. So, there was a show reel in place.

Since I had spent a significant amount of time in agency life and had some equity as an adman, it wasn't so difficult for most creative directors and writers and even the clients to trust me. They always knew I would understand the communication objective.

LBB> And why were Offroad the ideal people to do that with?

MT> I had a choice of many production companies, actually, but the thought of looking beyond Offroad never really crossed my mind. Even before I quit Lowe, I knew if there was anyone worth partnering with, it would be Offroad. That's because of Khalil Bachooali, founder and executive producer of Offroad films. We had worked in the past as creative director and producer on some global campaigns. We were as different as chalk and cheese. But hit it off well. He was a global citizen while I was a heartland boy. That difference, in hindsight, was very complementary. But there was something very common between us: the core value system. We both had come up the hard way. Both had lost our fathers when we were young. So, there was a natural admiration, respect and love for each other as human beings above everything else.

Until Khalil happened, I never really saw producers as more than facilitators. A necessary evil for whom ad film production was nothing more than glamorous, money-making device. But here was a man with a point of view as good as that of any creative/planning/account management person. But most importantly integrity as a filmmaker was something that stood out. 

My impression about producers was they were more interested in putting maximum money meant for production in their pockets rather than in front of the camera. That showed in their production values. You see I come from a school of thought that clients trust you implicitly with their money and you need to be ultra-sensitive and responsible about their needs first. Unfortunately, most producers had a trader mentality. With Khalil and Offroad, all that changed. For him sanctity of creative vision, work ethics and integrity were more important. Something that I resonated with. His passion for filmmaking and advertising was equal to mine, if not more. I saw it as an equal partnership in the true sense of the word.

Together we built the culture through hit and trial. Though Offroad is his baby, I can claim to have helped nurture it a bit.

LBB> How do you feel your years of agency experience help you as a director?

MT> Agency experience helps in knowing the marketing and communication objective instinctively. It also helps you understand what the core insight is and hence you can focus on how to best amplify it in the most entertaining and engaging manner. You also know the birth pangs a script and its creators must have gone through so you are sensitive to that fact as well. But most importantly, you know what's overwritten and unnecessary. How to take the leap without really changing the original idea. You also know what's the hidden gem that even the original authors may have missed while negotiating through endless rounds of research and changes.

LBB> What was the first project you directed when you joined Offroad?

MT> It was for Geetanjali diamonds featuring renowned veteran Indian film actress Sharmila Tagore and her daughter Soha Ali Khan.

LBB> What do you look for in a script when deciding what project to work on?

MT> I look for something I can have fun with and that I can bring alive. It could be the soul, a thought, a quirk, the idea itself, a visual element, something that can help me obsess over and come up with more ideas and take it to the next level. If I don't see myself adding value to a script, I say no straightaway. In fact, my producers at Offroad don't even bother to ask me as they know what I will keep away from. I am not a big fan of 'just-execute-the-agency-board-without-applying-your-brain-and-make-money' variety of filmmaking. You are working with some of the best creative brains, whether agency or production; why not have a healthy discussion, experiment and in the process learn a few things and create something that nobody has seen?

As someone bringing it to life, I gun for the feel and the soul.

LBB> Do you feel more creatively satisfied with your work now that you have become a director?

MT> I have enjoyed all aspects of creativity that I have been involved with. As a director, you get to explore more. Cinema is also an amalgamation of various art forms which you don't get to lay your hands on if you are only practising one aspect, say writing. So yes, it feels complete in that sense.

LBB> Which directing projects are your proudest of and why?

MT> Proudest is too strong a word. Being a highly self-critical Virgo, I cannot muster the courage to be proud of my films. I would say some journeys were more fun and soul-satisfying than the others: HDFC Cancer Cure fund ‘Dear Dad’, Samrat Atta, UNICEF Polio free India, Cipla Inhalers, Surf Excel ‘The Falling Test’, NACO Resignations, Idea, Dettol ‘Pregnant Mom', Lizol to name a few were some projects that were very gratifying.

Of these, HDFC ‘Dear Dad’ is the most personal film and will always remain dear to me. Not necessarily from the craft point of view but more on the emotional attachment that I have and will always nurture for the film. Also, Samrat Atta merely because of the philosophy behind it and the engaging concept which reaches out to people beyond boundaries.

LBB> What advice would you give to any agency creatives thinking about making the leap? What do you wish you’d known?

MT> Don't think, just take the plunge. But don't do it half-heartedly. Do it with absolute passion and blind faith in your abilities. Don't listen to the good advice from your mum, dad, colleagues or bosses that it's not for you. I wish I had known much earlier that I could direct.

LBB> Aside from directing you’ve also done a bit of screenwriting for the movies! How did you get involved in that?

MT> Again: a 'one thing led to the other' story. And a bit of luck. My NCD at Lowe, a fine gentleman called Balki, decided to give shape to his long pending desire to direct a movie. He wanted to tell the story in Hindi, a national language, but spoken more widely in north of India. Being a south Indian, he didn't have a natural flair for the language but I was good at it and he knew it as we had frequently collaborated on many advertising projects. He requested me for help and I did the needful. The film did well and along with Balki all others basked in the glory of it. Post that, I started getting many opportunities. Looking back, I have written most of the feature films for friends from the advertising fraternity who I have known for years.

LBB> What are your ambitions as a director?

MT> I am not fiercely ambitious by nature as I tend to believe ambition is the root cause of all evil. Having said that, I do have strong desires as a filmmaker and as a creative individual. Most importantly, to have a unique and distinct voice coupled with vision which is appreciated by a global audience. The essence is to create something the audience can relate to even if they are far removed from the cultural nuances that the film projects or the language in which the film is made.

I would also love to take a step ahead, challenging myself and making films which are perhaps born in different cultures or even languages that I don't understand. Make films with people who don't look, feel or think like me. That way I can imbibe something from them and give them what I have learnt up till now. How cool that will be! One of the most satisfying experiences to have, which will become a stepping stone to great collaborations in the future.

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Genre: Strategy/Insight