At 75, Prahlad Kakar — who started his career in advertising in Delhi in the early 70s before moving to Mumbai — has enough stories in his head to fill a hundred books. So, during the lockdown, when his partner Mitali suggested he put some down as a memoir, he said why not. Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad, co-written with author Rupangi Sharma, is a no-holds-barred account of “his most unforgettable experiences, peppered with viciously funny anecdotes from his personal life”.
In between teaching at Genesis Film Production, of which he is the founder-director, and reading — Kakar calls books his “ultimate retreat”, picking up poetry by T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings, titles by Wilbur Smith and Jean M. Auel, and re-reading his collection of 150 Louis L’Amour westerns — Adman Madman was also a chance to reminisce, to show young people what it “used to be like this”, and prove why “getting out of your comfort zone” inevitably brings out the best in you.
“Prahlad has made many teams happen. A lot of good directors [and models] have first worked with him and then become big timers. So, there’s a whole lot of stories about team building and getting the best out of everyone, of learning from life,” says fellow adman Piyush Pandey, Chairman of Global Creative and Executive Chairman India, Ogilvy, who caught up with him last Sunday to dig a little deeper.
Edited excerpts from the conversation.
Pandey: I’m here with my friend Prahlad Kakar, who calls himself the mad adman. But I think he’s a madman in life. If you read his book, he’s done some wonderful things in life, apart from advertising. Like scuba diving, starting a restaurant, and a film production company to teach people.
Kakar: Life is a classroom, and my earliest memories — from when I was four or five years — are of being thrown out of school. I continued to be thrown out of various institutions of great repute till I started realising that it was much more fun to be thrown out than to be part of them. So, then I used to engineer being thrown out. This whole business of teasing the establishment to react, because the establishment is a monolith, started young. The fact is that life throws everything at you, there are no terms of engagement. And you respond to the best of your ability. If advertising animals like you and me don’t confront a large establishment and say there are no rules of engagement, everything would sound the same.
Pandey: There’s only one rule of engagement and that is engaging with the audience.
Kakar: Not only engaging, but tickling their imagination and challenging them to take the journey with you. The moment you turn around and say 2+2 is not 4, it’s 22 — I’m giving you 2, you’re giving me 2, now let’s come out with 22 — it’s going to challenge them to interpret. ‘Adding value to the communication’ was my whole journey through life. For instance, I was scared of boxing, but I was made to box. Because I abhorred it so much, it taught me how to face fear, to respond to it by making it productive.
Pandey: Boxing is not aggression, it’s a science. It’s waiting for the right opportunity.
Kakar: And creating the right opportunity.
Pandey: Sometimes, people like us don’t know where our work will lead us. For instance, Prahlad would never have imagined that someday, a soldier would use the line ‘Yeh dil maange more’[said by Kargil hero, Captain Vikram Batra, it was later referenced in the 2021 movie Shershaah]. That’s the impact you leave on people. At the time of writing it, Prahlad didn’t know that this was going to go this far
Kakar: And become a part of language. We were told by Pepsi to translate the line — what they had was ‘Ask for more’.
Pandey: There’s a world of difference.
Kakar: Yes. Ask for more what? Pepsi? That’s consumption. Whereas what Anuja Chauhan and team [at JWT] made out of it was, ask for more from the heart. You’re not talking about Pepsi now, you’re talking about yourself. So, the line became huge, an anthem, that you ask for more from life. When we made the Pepsi film with the Sachin Tendulkar mask [in the late 90s], we had to fight for it. We felt there was merit in the idea — of little children wearing masks of Sachin and playing cricket under a tree in a basti.
The argument from the client’s side was, ‘This isn’t our target audience.’ So, I told them the line that Kenny D., who directed the film for me, said: whose is the bigger dream? A kid from a high rise who drinks Pepsi and wants to be Sachin versus a child from a basti who has nothing and wants to be Sachin? Advertising is storytelling. Somehow, in the last couple of years, because we’re so overtaken by technology, we don’t understand that it’s only a vehicle, it’s not an end in itself.
Pandey: I keep saying that Artificial Intelligence is fine, but you need some real intelligence behind it.
Kakar: The heart of advertising is the story — if you lose the art of storytelling, you lose engagement. If you have to engage with young people today, whose attention span is 5-10 seconds, and you don’t do it with a story that affects them, then there’s no advertising. Tools like AI and social media make life much easier because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel like we had to, but you also must have an idea that is worth delivering.
Pandey: I loved the stories which are about life. What your book does is allow people to think about things that don’t seem to matter, but tactually matter a hell of a lot in life.
Kakar: Absolutely. I wasn’t only doing one job. I was doing multiple things. But my whole approach to life is, if something really interests you or challenges you, why do you have to choose? When you do work that you enjoy, it’s immersive like a hobby. When I did scuba diving, it became a semi profession; cooking was a hobby, but it became restauranting, and so on. Everything I added to the kitty was not to earn more money or because it gave me a better lifestyle, it was just for pure pleasure.
Pandey: If I go back and look at your association with [filmmaker and mentor Shyam] Benegal, his films and yours have nothing to do with each other.
Kakar: We disagreed violently. [Benegal couldn’t abide fools and even got mentees to clean toilets — a lesson that stayed with Kakar.] In our profession, is there a place for second best? I made men clean toilets because I realised very early in my own life that detailing isn’t a part of the male behaviour pattern. Women, because they’re multitaskers and aesthetically much more refined, have a far greater idea of detailing.
What makes a filmmaker different? It’s the detailing. What was stopping men was ego. I realised that the only way to break that barrier was to pitch their hunger for learning against their inability to do so. I do this in my class even now. Kids today are entitled, but I say ‘if you show in your exercises a lack of detailing, then you will clean the ladies toilet with a toothbrush’. Media is changing so quickly that you have to be ahead of the curve, and you can only do that with an open mind.
Pandey: What I liked about your book is that you switch from one incident to another, just like how a human being thinks.
Kakar: It’s not chronological. I was influenced by this book called Dispatches written by a war correspondent [Michael Herr] on the Vietnam war, who wrote these amazing human interest stories. In one story, there was a battlefield in Khe Sanh where the Americans had a big base. The North Vietnamese forces encircled the valley. The only way to supply the base was through the air, so they used to bomb the hell out of the airfield to prevent planes from supplying the troops. Unlike Điện Biên Phủ, where the French were completely moribund, here the Americans had many ways to break the deadlock. One North Vietnamese soldier jumps into a foxhole — they call in the artillery and bomb the hell out of the hill, and they think ‘bas gaya [he’s dead]’. And this guy suddenly pops up and comes out of another tunnel. So, they napalm the mountain. After everyone celebrates, out he pops again and dives into another foxhole. So, here’s the enemy and every single GI on that outpost stood up and cheered.
Pandey: Within every problem, there is a solution. Here’s a war analogy, but it applies to any life situation. And that’s the beauty of the book — read between the lines because there is an analogy that relates to everything in life.
Kakar: It’s been a journey. Everything was done the hard way. You latched on to a vision, and you went for it hammer and tongs. It didn’t matter what it cost as long as you didn’t dilute your vision. These are lessons that kids today will not know — because everything is just the press of a button. It’s so convenient that they don’t value it anymore. The single overriding factor of success and failure is passion. And it is so difficult to incite that passion in kids now. The hunger is less. So, I have to really dig deep to find kids who are really hungry. That’s where the importance of failure comes in — you’ll want it more.
The book ends with some of the more interesting people that we’ve created at Genesis [from producers Pradeep Uppoor and Sunitha Ram to actor Raveena Tandon]. All of them are very different from each other; I call them the clan. It’s held together because of common experiences, achievements and goals. The clan will survive long after I’m gone.
Pandey: The clan is very important. They might be younger than you, but they’re your great support.
Kakar: Absolutely. Advertising is a funny profession. It’s a profession of the young, and the longer you remain young, regardless of your age, the more relevant you are. The secret of my youth is that every few years, I help my entire office to set up their own production houses so that they will compete with me and raise the bar in the industry. I taught people a craft, they taught me how to stay young.
Pandey: On that note Prahlad, keep young, and keep them young.