Meet the Creative Gurus – Rekha Nigam

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This week, I am truly privileged to feature Rekha Nigam in the series, Meet the Creative Gurus. Rekha has been a dear friend for nearly 20 years now and my respect for her has grown by leaps and bounds over these years. She joined Everest Advertising in 1979, aged 19. I first knew her when she was the head of Indian Language Creative at Trikya. Having created several landmark campaigns – from Pan Parag’s ‘Dhoom Machade Rang Jamade‘ (1980) to Bajaj Allianz’s Jiyo Befikar (2009), Rekha has been there, done that. After spending 21 years in advertising she joined Sony Entertainment Television as VP-Programming. Rekha has gone on to make her mark in Hindi films too, having written dialogues for Parineeta and Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, for which she also wrote the screenplay.

Rekha Nigam is a bundle of enthusiasm and positivity. She has a child-like enthusiasm for everything in life and never ceases to amaze me with her positive energy. Behind that bubbling energy is a razor-sharp mind. Despite her achievements and accolades she is rooted to the ground and always ‘real’. Personally speaking, she is a great source of inspiration… there is so much to learn from her. So, herewith an interview, presented in two parts.

1. Firstly, thanks for taking time out. Rekha, you are credited with putting Indian language advertising in the spot light. You have seen advertising when language advertising was the sole realm of the ‘translation department’; complete with pigeon holes for each language. What would you say about Indian language advertising today? What led to the change?

Thanks, but I think that I was just the most vocal advocate. There were fabulous writers like Balwant Tandon, and later Jaikrit Rawat amongst others who were writing great copy in Hindi. But no one had forced the powers that be to see the terrible apartheid that existed in the industry in the late ’70s when I joined. Not just the pigeon holes, but payment by the number of words, that too always came late. The writer was just supposed to enter, take his copy out of the pigeon hole, scribble his version, and leave. No brief, no explanations, no connection to the creative process. Most agencies did not even have a place for the writer to sit. Very few offered tea to ‘the vernacs.’ Fresh from college and bursting with pride in my mother-tongue and all Indian languages, my blood boiled at this state of affairs. Also, I was a first class graduate in English literature, so I could fight on their turf. I started out at the annual day function of my agency, and stunned the management into a whole lot of changes. The next year, I spoke at the Ad Club, and then there was no looking back. I am proud that I spearheaded the shift from payment by number of words to the nature of work and forced every agency I worked with to brief the writer comprehensively. I wasn’t alone. The changes could not have happened without a whole lot of impassioned people.

Today, the scenario has reversed. I smile when English writers tell me they no longer have a future in advertising. Piyush Pandey, Prasoon Joshi, Subhash Kamath, Kiran Khalap, Anuja Chauhan, Balki, Ramki…all sons of the soil and A-listers of the advertising world. Gulzar and Javed Akhtar are routinely called upon to write for commercials. The best TVCs are the ones based on insights from the real India. Real characters, interesting faces, music from the sounds of Indian instruments…It’s truly more than I dreamt of. The reasons? I was lucky to be talking at the right time. In the eighties, India began to come into it’s own like never before. We became more comfortable with who we were. With Sachin Tendulkar, Vishwanathan Anand and other such successes in the international arena, the colonial mentality began to fade, and we started to take pride in all things Indian. Young directors like Sooraj Badjatya with “Hum aapke hain Kaun’ and Aditya Chopra with ‘Dilwaale…’ gave us a new generation pride in our own brand of entertainment. All of this, coupled with the aspirations of small-town India, bursting with energy and ideas, created the scenario today.

2. How did you get into advertising? What advice would you give to someone looking to break into advertising today?

I got into advertising purely by chance. I had just given my B.A exams and was going through the newspaper when I saw an ad for ‘A language copy chief, age between 35-45.’ I had never entered an agency before. Those days no one knew what an advertising agency was. I sent them a ‘creative résumé. I was zapped when I was called for an interview. And absolutely stunned when I was selected. I totally learned on the job. It was a total initiation by fire. But I longed to go to work every morning. It was truly ‘the best fun I had with my clothes on.’ I don’t know about advice, but I would ask aspirants to join advertising only if they were truly interested in people. Because that is what it’s all about. I see too many people who are too self-centered, too wrapped up in their own world in advertising today. It’s not about a great felicity with words or magic with visuals at all. It’s about being interested in what the peon who brings your tea dreams about. Ask yourself, do you really care about the fantasies of a housewife who does not have a life so the others in her family can? Do you know what a rainbow tastes like to a little street child? Do you really understand what a cell-phone means to an illiterate woman in Balia whose husband works as a vegetable vendor in Mumbai? If you don’t give a damn, please stay away from advertising. Write a book, paint a masterpiece, make a movie that wins at every international festival, but DO NOT join advertising.

3. Could you please tell our readers about the Salaam Bombay campaign that you created, right after the Mumbai blasts in the early ’90s?

The Mumbai bomb blasts were our first brush with terrorism. Everybody was stunned. But Mr. Narottam Sekhsaria of Gujarat Ambuja saw amazing sights on his way home from the airport. He saw people helping strangers into their cars and ferrying them to the hospital, he saw teenagers directing traffic. He saw housewives giving tea and coffee to impromptu rescue squads. He was amazed. He called Ravi Gupta and asked if Trikaya could work on a campaign that called attention to this aspect of the blasts. Ravi Gupta was charged, and he called and briefed us. We had to work instantly, and the communication needed to be as simple as possible. I came up with ‘Salaam Bombay’. Mr. Gupta approved it immediately, and Vikas Gaitonde, the legendary art director, began scribbling logos. Vivek Kamath, a young live-wire writer began to write hoarding lines. Natasha, the films chief called a camera team and set out to shoot the city ‘verbatim.’ As the raw footage came in, I wrote a song to it, ‘aansoo ponch kar muskuraya ye sheher hamara.’ In a way, the campaign wrote itself. I don’t remember being so charged ever. The very next day, the hoardings were all over. I wrote a series of radio spots using interviews with survivors. The spots were on air in just a couple of days. I guess today you would call it a ‘360 degree campaign.’ There were T-shirts, bumper stickers, hoardings, a film, radio, the works. The impact was electrifying. It was as if the city was waiting for just this. People were reading the hoardings and cheering. Car owners were chasing us to get stickers. The hoarding owners were offering us free hoarding sites. Everyone wanted to wear the t-shirts. The media covered the campaign extensively. Recently, after the 26-11 attack, people called me and remembered ‘Aansoo ponch kar muskuraya ye sheher hamara…’ And the audience gave me a standing ovation when I went up to collect the ‘Campaign of the Year’ award. But I have to say that the impact of the campaign was a huge award, louder than the loudest applause.

Hope you enjoyed reading the first part of her interview. Here is Part II of the interview with Rekha Nigam.

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  1. Thank you for introducing Rekha in your blog. She is an inspiration – and even the word feels like such a cliche. I truly salute her for her determination and courage. The Hindi ad world has changed because of people like her. Wonder when the South will wake up? Until then, we will outsource work to talented senior citizens who don’t, unfortunately, have the time or inclination to listen to what the creative idea is.

  2. Awesome! I had no clue who she was, now I do. She’s a legend. Eagerly waiting for more ‘blast from the past’ interviews.


  3. The ‘aansoo ponch kar muskuraya ye sheher hamara’ thing gave me goose bumps, it still did as I read that paragraph…salaam rekhaji and great piece Lucky, you’ve asked her all the right questions. Also must add in this context, that the Sony programing is seeing a resurgence under her guidance. Looking forward to ‘betaab dil ki tamanna hai’ myself 🙂

    • Thanks, Sudarshan. Rekha quit Sony quite some time back to write for films. Yes, the Salaam Bombay campaign was goose-flesh stuff.

  4. Many many years back…I once ‘blank called’ Trikaya…and said I wanted to speak to somebody in creative…and the helpful receptionist (think it was Hema)…transferred my call to a warm, friendly voice who took out some time to explain to an absolute novice that to get into copywriting…I’d first need to give a ‘copy test’…or maybe work on a ‘portfolio’…and then she suggested some books that I could read…I was really overwhelmed that somebody could actually take out time for an unknown entity…unfortunately by the time I joined Trikaya (and before I could thank her properly)…Ms. Nigam had moved on…thank you Lucky…for this excellent series…looking forward to more interviews with these stalwarts…

    • haha, I am sure Hema must have said ‘have a nice day’, hope your family is doing well’ etc. too! Thanks for the comment.

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