Advertisement films in India have shared a curious relationship with women ever since television became an everyday reality in the country. While women have appeared frequently in front of the camera, sometimes outnumbering men in a few genres, rarely has a woman called the shots from behind the lens.
Step forward, Kopal Naithani. In a career spanning more than two decades, Naithani has helped pioneer the role of women as directors capable of conceiving subtle yet powerful ad-films that blend commercial appeal with artistic vision. Currently in charge of her own production house, Superfly Films, which she launched in 2016, Naithani has worked with brands such as Tanishq, Axis Bank, HUL, Flipkart, among several others.
In an exclusive interaction with FII, Kopal Naithani spoke about her initial days in the ad-film industry, the creative process behind some of her most popular ads, the glass ceiling that still exists for women as directors, her motivations and aspirations, and much more.
How did you get into the advertisement industry? What were your initial years like?
Kopal Naithani: I started working in 1999, after finishing my undergraduate degree in English literature from Delhi. I worked with Nagesh Kukunoor in Bollywood Calling in Mumbai and came back to Delhi. A friend of mine put me in touch with this advertising agency called Red Ice and that’s where I started working with Shoojit Sircar. My association with him eventually lasted for 16 years, during which I started directing as part of his company, Rising Sun Films.
In my initial days, I would always be juggling multiple roles on set. I would come onboard as a costume designer and work my way through a number of departments. I learnt everything on the job.
What is the most challenging aspect of making advertisements?
Kopal Naithani: Cracking the script. How do I nuance the script to my taste? What makes me unique, what is the tonality of the film? Since one story can be told in a million ways, how can I translate the story into its highest potential? What also matters a lot for me is the performances, since I’ve long been a performance director.
Your recent Tanishq ad, Marriage Conversations, beautifully depicts what needs to bind a couple ahead of marriage. Would it be fair to say that this ad displays your vision of love and togetherness?
Kopal Naithani: Tanishq is an amazing story, both in front and behind the scenes. When the agency called me up and told me about the concept, I thought about how I got married 11 years ago. I delayed my own marriage because I was kind of scared by the prospect. With my to-be-husband, I had a marriage talk (similar to the ones shown in the ad)- a beautiful, honest talk.
We spoke about what it really means to have a partnership, to go through the tough times, since things are never going to be hunky-dory all the time. We gave each other scenarios and asked what would happen if this were to happen. Would you leave me, or would you still love me?
Romance is beautiful, but after a time, the practicality of life sets in, and we both realised that. At the end of the conversation with him, I told my partner that we should be married.
So, Tanishq was very personal for me. We were very clear-cut about how we wanted to make these conversations sound. We measured every word, wondering if we were coming across as insensitive. But we also wanted to just let the characters speak, to voice their anxieties and get their fears and worries out of their systems.
There are two Flipkart ads that you have directed, one on the idea of choosing your age and the other on raising girls and boys equally, both of which carry very powerful social messages. Do you feel that this kind of social commentary inherently works best in an ad format because the truncated nature does not come across as preachy?
Kopal Naithani: It’s definitely much easier. Brands have nailed messages in 30 seconds in the past, but the conversation is becoming wider and more open nowadays.
Previously, you knew some brands who would always have some kind of social messaging, but now more and more brands are stepping on the bandwagon. If you’re talking about young India, nobody is waiting for an ad break on television. So you have to connect and speak through the media where the youth are watching and that provides scope for the kind of conversations we need to have as a society.
You have directed an ad for Boroplus on what the brand calls a “healthy white fairness cream”. We all know how the fairness cream industry has been glorifying a specific idea of beauty for women for decades. While making this ad, did you want to counter the fairness narrative or did you feel that would be infringing upon the brand appeal and identity?
Kopal Naithani: In this particular ad, we were very clear in wanting to show women as strong and independent.
Yes, the concept was beauty and fairness, but it was also about the independence of women.
When it comes to fairness, almost every brand markets fairness (in how they depict women on screen). Some just sell it. As an individual director, I cannot single-handedly alter the perception of an industry that is all about brightening, whitening, whitening, brightening.
But to the extent I can, I have tried to show the women as women with agency, in charge of their lives.
What kind of structural barriers do female ad-directors have to overcome in India?
Kopal Naithani: I started 20 years ago. I had no female role models at the time. Are there many more women directors today? Yes, there are. But how many can you name? Are they as successful as the men? They’re not. Why not? It’s because of the nature of opportunities.
For me to grow in my work, I need to grow in terms of what I do as well as what I get. That kind of growth doesn’t happen for a lot of women.
As a woman in the ad-film industry, you’re chasing your own tail. Without the right opportunities, how will you show your merit?
It’s not as simple as saying that there is sexism or there isn’t. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
You mentioned in your TEDx talk that even after so many years in the industry you still end up getting ads of certain genres that are regarded as more of a woman’s domain. How do you respond to that?
Kopal Naithani: I don’t get car commercials. But I have got one scooty commercial! In ads, you usually get slotted as a director. The perception that I am very good with kids was there early on in my career. That was a bit frustrating. Beyond a point, it got too much. I tried very hard for car and sports commercials, but things rarely worked out.
Now I’m more known for performances, which I’m quite happy with.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? What are the goals that keep motivating you everyday?
Kopal Naithani: If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would’ve said that I’d be sitting in a farm by now, retired. But I’m not retired, I’m still working. For me, my entire career has been about proving something to myself.
After a long journey, I feel a semblance of fruitfulness.I want to own my successes as well as my failures. The day I’m happy with what I make, that day I will be done.
I have a company of my own now, filled with sincere people. They are a huge part of my motivation, along with my family.