Ayappa Feature Image

November 14, 2014

Dialogue: Ayappa KM, Ad film director & Co-founder, Early Man Film

By Payal Khandelwal

While Woody Allen has a very distinctive similarity in almost all of his movies, any two Stanley Kubrick films are like chalk and cheese. It’s interesting that Indian ad film director Ayappa KM mentions Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen as two of his favorite film directors. Ayappa has managed to become synonymous with comedy, which reflects in his fantastic body of work in the comedy genre. His brand of comedy is slick, sharp and even satirical in some places. He has directed films for brands like Flipkart, Domino’s, Cadbury, Tata AIG, Bournvita, McDonalds, Tata Docomo, to name just a few. While he confesses that he has been very comfortable in the genre and the format, he has now brought home the urge to be uncomfortable and to try something completely new.

Ayappa moved to MTV after a stint at Orchard Advertising, first in client servicing and then in copywriting. He made his directorial debut at MTV. After that, he has been with the production house Footcandles Film. In 2013, Anand Menon (who co-founded Footcandles) and he set out to launch a new production house, Early Man Film where they have carried over the people and directors from Footcandles. Early Man Film aims to be known internationally for its work and wants to break into formats other than ad films, including digital, documentaries and features.

Here are the edited excerpts from the conversation with Ayappa on films, advertising, travel, being slotted in a genre, his future plans, his favourite directors and more.

Photography by Kaushik Chakravorty

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What was the first thing you wanted to be when you were growing up?

When I was small I used to hear these male voiceovers on TV for various ads. I was very impressed with their deep voices so I wanted to be a voiceover artist. I used to repeat them to myself and feel like a stud. But it was really stupid and not a dream or anything. I also took my law exam and failed. So I had absolutely no idea what I really wanted to be till I was about 20 years old.

So that’s when you figured what you were really interested in?

Yes. In college cultural festivals, you have these skits where each college has their own teams and I used to be a part of one such team. I used to write these skits, act and also direct. Like Dev Anand. That’s when I realized that I really enjoyed writing and was creative.

But unfortunately, I landed up in client servicing wearing a tie, rather than creative (in Orchard Advertising). I continued doing it for about 5-6 months and then one day I got very drunk and poured out my frustrations to a creative director who took pity on me and gave me a copy test. I passed and moved to the creative department of the same agency as a copywriter. Finally I could wear torn jeans and land up late.

When did you move to MTV?

This was in 2005. I was a little dissatisfied with my copywriting career. It was sort of going well but I used to go to a lot of shoots while in Orchard and I would see all these directors directing. And I used to often feel that I could do that too. I wanted to try it out. And I used to watch a lot of films and a couple of them really influenced me. So I decided to take a leap and try something new. And I had decided that if it doesn’t work out at MTV, I will come back to copywriting but fortunately, I got a chance to direct at MTV and it took off from there.

Were you both writing and directing at MTV? 

Yes, since I was a writer who had joined to direct, I ended up doing both.

What was the first film you directed? 

It was a film I did for Xbox Porok when I was in MTV. I had come from advertising and there was this brief from the client. Since I could write, I wrote the copy and then directed it with a friend of mine. Since the client didn’t put much money in it, he didn’t really care so we had a lot of creative freedom on the project. It turned out to be quite an interesting film and I started getting a lot of (direction) work because of that film.

You are known for your comic timing. Does being slotted in a category irritate you sometimes? And what are the advantages? 

It does not irritate me at all. It’s actually quite good to be known for a particular genre. Instead of just being average at everything, it’s good to be great at something. And then you can obviously leverage that.

But then the bad part about it is that advertising agencies often pigeonhole directors into these categories. To a certain extent, that’s true as some people are stronger in some genres versus the others. But due to this, I end up shooting comedy all the time. I really want to do something different, maybe something emotional or a really stylish film. Comedy is easy for me now since I have been doing it for so long. I like funny things so I enjoy doing it but it doesn’t challenge me as much as it used to. So when you want to broaden your horizons, it does get difficult to get other styles of work if you are known as a comedy director because people assume you cannot do other genres, which is not true.

You have created animation films for brands like Tata AIG and Britannia. How much does animation fascinate you and in terms of direction, how different is the experience?

Since I used to work at MTV, I like animation. It’s not real and it’s a space where anything goes so you can be really bizarre, strange and crazy. That’s what I like about animation.

In terms of how is it different, unlike a film, half of the time we don’t really know how it will turn out to be because we are leaving it in the hands of an animator. That way it’s a little strange because at the end of the day, the final product is only in the head of the animator. I can tell him or her what I want but I can’t ensure they deliver that. There have been times when I have been screwed over also. The basic fabric is the same; you have to put together a certain set of visuals which need to get an emotional reaction out of people. But it’s a little more uncertain for me because I don’t have absolute control and that’s why I don’t do much of it. But having said that, the scope of animation is far greater than films as you can do crazy stuff which you can’t do in regular films.

Who are the Indian ad film directors whose work you like?

Among the older guys (who are still directing), Prasoon Pandey is by far the finest director we have. What he did for Indian advertising is amazing. He created a completely new space. For what he did in films like Fevicol etc., the repercussions are still there. Then Prakash Varma is also great. Among the new lot, Vivek Kakkad is a good director. I like Bob’s (Shashank Chaturvedi) work too.

From the advertising creatives, who are you most comfortable working with?

I like working with Manoj Shetty and Amitabh Agnihotri from Ogilvy. Then there’s Karthik Iyer from Happy, we do all the Flipkart work together. Also Vasudha from Ulka. And Zarvan Patel and Prashant Godbole from ideas@work. See at the very basic level of it, you need to get along as human beings. So they give me a lot of space, they don’t interfere beyond a point and most importantly, they write good scripts. So I try my best to give them great films in return.

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What happens when there is a clash of vision with the advertising creatives?

I consciously take up projects only where my point of view is taken seriously. At the end of the day, the clients are paying money for these ads and agencies come to you for a reason. Most of the times, they will listen to you because they are coming to you for a certain kind of style. But if I get a bad vibe from the creative then I don’t take up the project because then it just becomes a job where you are simply making money and I don’t like to do that.

So yes, I am very selective about my work and don’t take up what I don’t believe in. And that’s the reason that 90% of my work ends up as I envision it. The other 10% I’ve just screwed up.

How does it work when you are a part of a production house? Do you get to choose each and every project or they are often assigned to you as well?

It’s an open question. It depends really on the production house as some production houses force you to do work and some let you choose. But at the end of the day, it’s entirely your call as to which road do you want to go down on. Do you want to make a great film or a lot of money? Or both? I don’t like to do things I don’t like. I would rather go for a holiday and drink beer than do something I don’t want to do and I have been very clear about this since the beginning. We are all in this business because we are creative and we need to do work which makes us happy. If I just had to make money, I would have joined a bank.

What’s your personal favorite film out of the films you have directed?

I am a very harsh critic of my own work and I eventually end up finding flaws in everything. The only one that got by is a film for Airtel Digital TV, about window seats and people looking at life through them. It was moody and meditative, something very different for me. But then the MBAs thought it was cheap and down-market. Also ‘too dark’. So they pissed all over it and eventually decided to scrap it. RIP.

Have you ever had to reshoot a film?

Not really. I have had a couple that bombed and the client wanted to reshoot but I backed out. It was horrible and I couldn’t deal with the torture twice. And that is exactly why I don’t do films thatI am not interested in, becauseI end up screwing them up.

Do you have any inclination to move to features?

Oh yes, absolutely. Feature films are the closest you can get to expressing yourself artistically. And I feel that this is the right time for getting into features. People are buying new content and it’s much easier to make a film now and easy to get it financed etc. You don’t have to sleep with producers anymore.So yes, it’s a great time to do it andI will definitely be doing it in a year or so.

Is there any idea that you have been working on for your first film?

Yes, it’s a coming of age travel based film but I don’t have the screenplay ready yet. But I knowI want to do it in a year.

Who are the film directors whose work you really admire?

There are lots. But Stanley Kubrick is my all time favorite director. He could strike the perfect balance between a good story and great execution. None of the two gets overpowering. Whatever film he did, it turned out to be the best in that genre, whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the sci-fi genre or The Shining in horror. But at the same time he was supposed to be this really obsessive kind of guy and that’s not a good thing beyond a point. Then I also like Coen brothers, Richard Linklater, Federico Fellini, Woody Allen and Bong Joon Ho.

Amongst the Indian directors, I like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vikramaditya Motwane. Other than these, I hate everyone equally.

A lot of directors are extremely particular about the editing part of the film, like Kubrick for example. How involved do you get when it comes to editing?

For me casting and editing are the two most important aspects. Editing is even more important than casting I think and so I spend most of the time in a film in editing. Especially for comedy, you really need to know where to cut, how much or how little to show. It’s not so important in say style films which have montages as there are 100 ways to cut and they all usually work. But when it comes to comedy, making people laugh, there are just two or three ways exactly. You need to be very clear while editing. I keep sitting on the offline until my editor’s wife threatens to leave him. So yes, editing is very crucial for me.

What about the other aspects of the film like casting, music, costume, etc.? How deeply do you end up getting involved?

To be a good director you obviously have to be involved in every department. In the west it’s quite different. For example, you just tell the costume guys, art directors etc. about what you have in mind and they come back to you with ideas. But in India, we are like cows, far more lazy. So here the only way to make a good film is to control everything and I don’t mean control in a dictatorial way. But you do need to be involved in everything.

Do you have any role models? And what are the things that really inspire you?

I don’t have any role models. In advertising, career wise, my old boss Thomas Xavier (from Orchard Advertising) has been a great teacher. It is very important who you start your career with. Since your mind is open, people can throw all kinds of rubbish in it. And often, what your first boss tells you stays in your head. Thomas was great. I also like Cyrus Oshidar. Unlike most creatives, he hasn’t lost his mind with age. Inspiration wise, I travel a lot and what influence me are the things I see, experiences I have and people I meet during these travels. So there is no one person who has influenced me. It’s been a collective influence.

Does the city you live in (Bombay) inspire you in some way?

For me, more than the city I live in, it’s the places I travel to that actually inspire me. But having said that, in some ways, Bombay does inspire. Our pigsty standard of living is so bad and still people don’t care and they go on. So that whole cliché about ‘the spirit of Bombay’ is actually true. The story of trying to achieve something in this poverty and squalor is nice but beyond a point, it doesn’t influence me much. I’d rather travel.

How do you usually make a note of things/situations that inspire you or could be used as reference for work?

Sometimes I remember them but most of the times I know I am going to forget so I send myself an email or make a note of it on my phone. You need to keep noting down these ideas otherwise you might lose them. However, if it’s a really strong idea, it will just stay in your mind.

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Are you into reading?

I read but not too much. I prefer watching films since books take two weeks of my time but a film only takes two hours. But I read Woody Allen a lot. I am deeply influenced by the way he writes his comedy. And also Haruki Murakami. He can transform the mundane into the extraordinary. His writing is very hard to capture on film. Then I like comics by Osamu Tezuka. I also secretly read those shady ‘Sexpert’ columns in the papers.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in direction?

I would say it’s a great choice and right now, it’s a great time to get into it as technology is not in the way. Ten years ago, you were so dependent on so many other things to make a film or an ad. Now with all the technology, absolutely nothing stops you from going and shooting a film.

Secondly, have an unflinching vision and never compromise to achieve that. At the end of the day, whether it’s good or bad or whether people love it or hate it, it’s your vision and that’s what makes it unique. Just do what you think is right and have the maturity to realize whenever you’re not.

Thirdly, never live in Lokhandwala.

Is it a good idea to start off in ad films before moving to features or it doesn’t really matter?

If you look at the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about luck and timing. But it does help in a way to start in advertising first.

It is financially more stable but that doesn’t matter much. Advertising helps because you are constantly shifting from one project to the other and as a result, your learning curve is much faster as compared to a feature. It makes things clearer to you, like what kind of genre you like. But the only thing you have to keep in mind is that in advertising you need to operate in the 20% part where interesting work is happening.

And since you are a self-taught director, what’s your view on self-taught versus going to a film school?

So the disadvantage is that you are technically not very strong when it comes to things like lighting, lensing, etc., but that you pick up as you go along.

The advantages are that there are no rules and guidelines to follow. If you’re self taught, it’s all in your own head. You can pretty much create what you want. For me, it is much better that I shoot, make mistakes and learn rather than studying books about direction. You can teach someone to paint but you can’t teach him to be a good painter.

Also, I feel self taught directors have less angst.

Do you feel that there is not enough recognition for ad film directors in India?

I don’t think that ad film directors get any less credit. At the end of the day if it’s a good film, people will enquire about the director. But it’s absolutely okay even if we don’t get enough credit. It’s not like we are eradicating world hunger or anything.

At this particular point in your career, do you feel satisfied with what you have done?

I feel satisfied in a way. I am happy that I’m in a creative field where no two days at work are the same. It would have been worse had I cleared my law exam. But one should never feel completely satisfied ever. At the end of the day, whatever ads you have done might be good and funny but will people remember them after twenty years? I don’t think so. I have far more to achieve. There are features and then the possibilities on the net to break format and create new hybrids.

To be honest, I used to think that advertising, creating ads, was my greatest goal, but after seven years of being in the business I realize that it’s been too easy. Coincidentally, you are asking me this question at a time where I am craving to do more. Great things are never achieved by being comfortable. I want to put myself in a place where I am scared again.

A version of this article originally appeared in Kyoorius Magazine 20. 

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