Many people are amazed that I have two full-time careers, one in theatre and one in advertising, when they can barely handle one. Incredible as it may seem, I’ve spent most of my adult life helping to run Lintas – among the largest advertising agencies in India – while at the same time, producing and directing fifty full-length plays for one of the most active theatre groups in this country. ‘How did you manage it?’ they ask. ‘Is there any connection between the two professions?’

As I look around Bombay today, I am forcefully reminded that there is indeed a connection. Theatre people dominate the ad scene. If it’s not Sylvester da Cunha Amul-buttering his way to glory after being a cardholder of the Theatre Group of Bombay for decades, it is Kersy Katrak leaping off the stage after Hamlet and forming India’s legendary advertising agency, MCM. Then there are Roger Pereira and the late Homi Daruvala, the twin thespians who took Shilpi Advertising from an elegant boutique to a Top Ten agency. And Usha Katrak who stunned audiences with her Medea, years before she stunned the ad world with the agency Radeus. Lintas, of course, has provided the stage for theatre stalwarts like Gerson da Cunha, Kabir Bedi and Dalip Tahil, and film novitiates like Shyam Benegal, Robin Dharmaraj and Sumantra Ghosal.

What is this weird nexus? And how did it come about? Though theatre is as important as breathing to me, I have to admit, godammit, it doesn’t pay a living wage! Where else can one write words, shoot pictures and turn imagination into reality but in advertising, and get paid for it handsomely? No wonder then that creative icons like Ebrahim Alkazi of the theatre, Nissim Ezekiel of the world of poetry and dozens of others from the arts have been tempted into advertising at one time or the other. It’s a fascinating profession which also pays for the bread, butter and BMW.

When I started out in advertising, I had come from a theatre background. But at that time, there weren’t many other people in advertising who also came from the theatre. There was of course, the late Hamid Sayani, and I think he was the one who pioneered this trend that soon became quite common. He had been in theatre for many years and then joined Stronach Advertising. A little later, another theatre man, Sylvester da Cunha, too joined Stronach’s and then moved to Advertising and Sales Promotions (ASP). His brother, Gerson da Cunha who was also from the theatre, joined J. Walter Thompson.

And then when I was strapped for cash and realised that theatre couldn’t pay my bills, I too, joined the advertising business. And after that came a whole succession of people. There were also people from the Hindi theatre like Satyadev Dubey who joined Lintas for a short time.

And before you could say ‘To be or not to be’, it was very much, to be in theatre was to be in advertising. Strange to say, a lot of the younger theatre critics, who know nothing of the history of advertising in this country, erroneously chant the mantra, ‘The world of theatre has been invaded by the advertising philistines.’ And even earlier critics felt that ‘the advertising boys’, as we were so ignominiously called, were overrunning the theatre. In their words, ‘Commerce, crass commerce, is invading art.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. It was, in fact, hungry art taking over plush advertising. All the ravenous theatre boys wanted the good life and they thought what better than to join advertising. The outstanding reverse phenomenon was the ad man Satyajit Ray crossing over to the poorly paid art cinema from a cushy job as Art Director of Clarion, Calcutta.

And this trend has continued over the years. After the first group of theatre people had crossed over to advertising came the next generation, with people like the brilliant actor Vijay Crishna, ‘Bugs’ Bhargava Krishna, Bharat Dabholkar, Ravi ‘Rags’ Khote and Adi Pocha. In more recent times, the trend has continued with Rahul da Cunha, Kunal Vijaykar and Cyrus Broacha.

Credit: Tata Literature Live
Credit: Tata Literature Live

More important than the names was the attitude. Which was, ‘My God! Someone is actually paying us money to create words and pictures. This is incredible! The same things that we do in the theatre for free, pay us big bucks in advertising.’

My advice to any agency head looking for creative or client service people is: grab young playwrights, set designers and actors. They could be your Kersy Katraks, Rahul da Cunhas and Bugs Bhargavas of tomorrow.

In retrospect, the question I ask myself is, “What is it that makes theatre people effective advertising people?” What is the nexus between the two professions? What is the overlap? What is it that allowed me to lead a successful “double life”?

The first similarity between the two professions is obviously role-playing. In the theatre you try to put yourself into the shoes of the character you’re portraying. Whether it’s Hamlet or Jesus Christ Superstar or Begum Sumroo or The Merchant of Venice or anyone else. In advertising, every time you dream up an ad for a lipstick, if you’re a male, you put yourself in female high heels. Every time you think of selling beedis, you put yourself in the bare feet of a manual labourer.

This ability to put yourself, not so much in the shoes, but rather in the mind and heart of the consumer, is the hallmark of a great advertising strategist. And this comes so naturally to actors. It seems absurd to me that this phenomenon of theatre people in advertising doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world.

It certainly doesn’t occur in London’s West End or in New York’s Broadway. I was recently told that it does happen in Sri Lanka, but in all my years of travelling around the world, I have never seen this syndrome repeated. Except for Don Wilde who was a theatre person working in Lintas: New York. Perhaps one of the reasons is that advertising is looked down upon by people in the arts abroad. They’ve never thought of it as a respectable way to make a living. There was a famous book by a Frenchman who said, “I told my mother I was a piano player in a brothel rather than reveal that I was working in an ad agency!” It could also be due to the fact that theatre people in the West are paid much more than here. There, there is professional theatre. And actors are paid accordingly. There are shows daily and even twice a day sometimes. So it’s a full-time job and they are rewarded handsomely. But in India, it’s really just amateur theatre. At least in the English theatre, to which I belong.

The next similarity between the two professions can be found in the processes. In advertising, you start off with an idea. Or what we call the “big idea”. In theatre, you start off with the script. Which is your big idea. Then there’s the delineation of the idea. In advertising you have to decide in what context to put your idea. Whether it’s a family scene or a sports-field or just a girl frolicking under a waterfall. You’re actually asking your models to delineate character, like you would ask your actors on stage. Sometimes, you even get your products to delineate character.

Theatre develops your imagination, while advertising develops your analytical powers. Using advertising as the theatre of fantasy and theatre as the laboratory of human behaviour is fascinating. And even if you switch them around, you’ll find that they’re equally valid.

I’ve always believed that the art of advertising is really the art of show business. In advertising you show off your brand rather than your characters. This show business aspect first came through with the launch conference of Surf in 1958. We demonstrated the power of this detergent on stage with a giant transparent bucket and a jet of compressed air, which formed oceans of instant lather. That was forty years ago. Today almost every brand launch is an Event using showbiz techniques.

A young Alyque Padamsee.
A young Alyque Padamsee.

Then there’s the whole discipline of paying attention to detail in both professions. The models or actors, the lighting, the music, the scenery, the entire mise en scène. And everything has to be fine-tuned for maximum effect.

In theatre everything is geared towards opening night. And in advertising too, everything is geared towards your first release. Then there are repetitive performances. The play has repeat performances. The ad has repeat releases. There’s a chance to correct mistakes, if any, and constantly improve.

Another aspect of the advertising-theatre nexus is presentation flair. An actor is a born presenter. So is an ad man. Both are able to use their voice and body to make an impact on the audience. This comes in very useful when you’re at a client presentation. If you can act out your film, a client usually gets convinced. “Hey! This one will probably work.” If you just hand him a dead script, even with a good pictorial storyboard, he may not get the impact of what you’re trying to convey.

A lot of the success we enjoyed at Lintas was thanks to the professional theatre attitude we carried over into advertising. Everything was preplanned. Whether it was a pre-production meeting for a film or rehearsing before a client presentation. All of us in advertising, who came from the theatre, brought with us a certain discipline. For example, opening night is a cruel time to make mistakes. Similarly, a client presentation is not an opportune moment to realise that the lettering on your slides is so small that the client can’t read what’s on them.

It seems strange that theatre should teach advertising the art of discipline, when the latter outspends the former a million times over. After all, you would expect a high level of accountability in advertising, where you’re spending so much of other people’s money.

A pennypinching product manager once asked me, “Why is the cost of the Liril film so high, when you don’t have any costumes, except a bikini, and you don’t have any sets, except a waterfall?!!” Being from the theatre, I had a ready reply: “A location shoot actually costs much more than a studio set, because of air tickets and hotel accommodation for models and technical crew, transportation of camera and lighting equipment and fees paid to owners of the location. Add to that, pre-trips (better known as ‘recce trips’) to find the right location. Would you like to come along for the ride? It will only increase the cost by another Rs. 10,000.” The poor product manager mumbled something incomprehensible and slunk away, my tale between his legs.

One area in which advertising teaches theatre is feedback. In advertising, you pre-test before you finalise the campaign. And that’s certainly something I have learnt to utilise in my productions. I always have a preview of my plays before a trial audience, and make changes before I go in front of the Opening Night audience. Most theatre producers don’t follow this necessary discipline.

And that’s something that is fascinating about both professions. You get the chance to revise and re-present. In advertising, if you are working in a reasonably professional agency, the ad is always put to the test where the consumer might say, ‘Well, the beginning of the ad was wonderful but my interest tailed off towards the end. ‘ So you go back to the drawing board and try to iron out the creases. In a play, you may suddenly realise that you’ve miscalculated. And the audience is not picking up what you thought they would. So you go back to rehearsals and you revise your production. In that way, they are both malleable media.

And they are both audience driven. There can be no theatre without an audience. It’s wonderful to rehearse a play, but when you go into the auditorium and you realise you haven’t sold a single ticket, there’s no way you’ll feel like performing. It’s also wonderful to create a campaign, but if you realise that no one’s watching the program that you’ve slotted your ad in, or if no one is responding to your ad, you’re going to withdraw your commercial and put it some place where there’s a larger audience.

I also discovered that both professions are actually in the business of ‘manufactured reality’. When you produce a play or create an advertising campaign, you are in effect manufacturing reality. An interesting question arises: Is ‘manufactured reality’ truth or lies? Or is it, as Shakespeare puts it, ‘Lies like Truth’?

When Kabir Bedi donned black make-up to play Othello, was it the same as Karen Lunel donning her green bikini to play the Liril girl? When people view actors, whether they are in a play or in a commercial, there is a willing suspension of disbelief. The audience knows they are watching something that is play-acted and not real, but if well done, it still sweeps them off their feet. These are the ‘lies like truth’ that power both theatre and advertising.

The other area where I find great similarities between the two professions is teamwork. You cannot produce an ad without a team and you cannot produce a play on stage without a team. On the stage you have the actors and the stage manager and the make-up man and the lighting guys and so on. All of them work together for anything between six weeks and six months towards the big opening night. And in advertising, you have the copywriter and the art director and the client-servicing guys and the media chaps and the studio and production guys, all working together as a team towards the big campaign release.

There’s a great amount of team spirit. And with team spirit comes a certain bonhomie, a friendliness, a camaraderie. Which you rarely find in most other professions. There, it’s more a vertical structure, whereas in advertising and theatre, it’s more a horizontal structure, where you have one man as the director of the play or head of the agency and all the people below that are more or less equal. They may have different designations and various levels of salaries, but for the most part, they are all on equal footing when it comes to creating the ad or the play.

This gives one a tremendous sense of involvement. A sense that we’re all in this together. Everyone is working hand in hand towards opening night or towards the break of a new campaign. There’s a feeling of heightened excitement. I think I get an equal thrill from a campaign breaking as from a play opening. It’s a heady rush of adrenalin and the butterflies in the stomach are very similar.

Credit: Teach for India
Credit: Teach for India

In fact, both professions are so absorbing and fulfilling that you barely have time for family and friends. I personally have been in rehearsal, sometimes, 200 days a year. This means skipping birthday parties, weddings and other ceremonial occasions. But I’ve never missed out on my social life because the theatre is not all work. There’s lots of play as well. After-work parties are the order of the day, as they are in advertising. Each profession is a whole world, complete with intellectual stimulation, strong friendships and male-female bonding. No wonder, we often marry within our own profession. I’ve done it myself. To me, the theatre not only comes first, but is central to my existence. In a lesser sense, so is advertising. Between these two demanding mistresses...I am surprised, in retrospect, that I have had time for three wives!

To lead a double life like me, you need to be a master of time-planning. Particularly when you start at the bottom, as I did. As a trainee in advertising. You’ve got to juggle around your time in such a manner that if a client presentation and a dress rehearsal are both at the same hour, you somehow manage to attend both.

How the hell do you do that? The first thing is to see if you can reschedule the dress rehearsal. If the theatre says, “No, sorry. That’s the only time we’ve got,” then you find some way in which you make your part of the presentation to the client first, and then slip away quietly and unobtrusively. That is easier said than done. Especially if you make a splash and everyone at the meeting says, “Yes, go on. Tell us more.” Then you’re caught between the client devil and the deep blue mascara.

But if you do want to do both, you need to do your planning well in advance. And then at the last minute if a client changes his schedule, you say, “I’m terribly sorry, but something personal has come up. I can’t explain right now.” Never ever say it’s the theatre. Because to them, theatre is fun and advertising and marketing is work!

I’ll never forget the clash of interests I had when I was in school. I was playing cricket for my class, and at the same time, I had a bit role in Ebrahim Alkazi’s Richard III at St Xavier’s College. I had planned my schedule accordingly, so that I would be able to make it for both. Suddenly Alkazi decided to have a special Press viewing of the play at exactly the time I was supposed to be on the cricket field.

I was in a quandary. Since I was the pace bowler for my class, I couldn’t miss the match. On the other hand, Alkazi, though small in stature, had a formidable personality that brooked no excuses. I prayed desperately that the match would end in a rout one way or another, so that I could rush back for the show.

As it turned out, it was a long-drawn-out match and I kept looking at my watch and wondering if the Press show had started. Unfortunately, I was on in the early scenes. As soon as the match was over, I dashed to the hall. Naturally, there was no question of taking a taxi on my schoolboy allowance. So I ran from where the Wankhede Stadium is now, all across Azad Maidan to St Xavier’s College.

When I arrived, Alkazi was furious. The play was already halfway through, and I had missed my key scene. Someone had had to stand in for me, reading from the script. I tried to tell Alkazi that I would have been thrown out of school if I’d missed the match and he said to me, “Well, in any case, you’ve been thrown out of something. You’re out of the play.”

I was in disgrace for six months! And from that day, I learnt that time planning and having a good excuse up your sleeve are equally important. A Double Life traces my path from an advertising trainee to CEO while doing fifty full-length plays along the way.

Excerpted with permission from My Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theatre and Advertising, Alyque Padamsee with Arun Prabhu, Penguin India.