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The Moment Aishwarya Burst Into Our Lives

January 10, 2024 10:04 IST

'We did take after take, confusing and stressing her out, until she just threw up her hands and said she couldn't do it.'
'She was close to tears.'

A fascinating excerpt from Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad by Prahlad Kakar with Rupangi Sharma.

The original Michael J Fox film was ninety seconds long; Pepsi wanted an Indian copy of 45 seconds for TV and 60 seconds for cinemas. We were the ones chosen to cast and shoot the film, preferably with Shah Rukh Khan-an up-and-coming actor at the time.

The challenge was to try, cast it and make it better and more relevant to India than the original.

We got into a huddle, and we figured that the popular choice for a Michael J Fox equivalent or more was, at that time, Aamir Khan though Shah Rukh was a very close contender.

Pepsi was not overjoyed by our choice of Aamir over Shah Rukh as they had already negotiated with Shah Rukh, and Aamir was asking for the sky and not budging -- partly because it was his first TVC and he wasn't very keen on doing it anyway as doing an ad film was looked down on by the film industry then (it was seen as only meant for film stars who were out of a job at the time).

Pepsi put a lot of pressure on us to accept Shah Rukh, but calculating the stakes involved, I dug my heels in as I knew that Aamir was a better fit for the story. It went to and fro and, finally, we showed Aamir the original film, which got him excited enough to at least sound enthusiastic. He still wouldn't budge on the price.

Finally, Pepsi also saw the sense in it as well and upped their budget to sign on Aamir Khan. Phew, first hurdle crossed; now for the girls.

JWT came up with a really pretty girl from the tea gardens; her name was Ritu Chaudhry (who Subhash Ghai later renamed Mahima Chaudhry for Pardes). She was selected to be the girl who rings the bell at Apartment lOG -- one down, one to go.

Now for the bombshell.

We looked high and low, but just couldn't find someone with the magical quality of an instant connection.

We looked and looked and just weren't happy with whomever we found.

She was to be the clincher in the film, the secret weapon, the bombshell that exploded on the screen for three seconds and left everybody screaming for more.

In the hustle and bustle of a normal day at Genesis, two young college students with huge architecture portfolio folders strolled into the office to meet Mitali and show her their work -- one was Zhya Jacobs, a friend's son, and the other was his tall, green-eyed friend.

My trusty assistant, Monia Sehgal, barged into my room and announced, 'I've found her!'

What? I thought and leapt up to see this goddess.

Monia led me to the editing room to see the attractive college girl with her hair tied back and no make-up on. She was wearing a kurti, a pair of distressed jeans (as was the trend) and work chappals, and carried a jhola -- nothing earth-shattering.

The thing that arrested my disappointment were her mesmerizing eyes-slate grey and green, depending on her mood.

I asked her to loosen her slightly oily hair and out tumbled a mane of wavy, auburn tousled hair. Not bad, but not the jackpot. Not yet.

Monia saw my disappointment through my bland and polite expression, and followed me to my cabin, saying, 'Just let me test her; she is really quite unique and fabulous.'

I looked at her in grim exasperation, but she said with great conviction, 'We will give her a makeover. Watch how the camera will love her. I stake my life on it!'

I told Monia that I wanted the wet look for one of the tests, with only light make-up on, just her eyes and her mouth, with her hair plastered close to her skull-and bingo!

She looked quite stunning because of her bone structure; the camera loved her. We had our shows topper, with a mane of auburn hair and a wet look-both shots were fantastic.

It was Aishwarya Rai.

To completely foolproof the plan, we also cast Aishwarya in a short film for Prudent mouthwash.

Vidyadhar, the make-up man, was briefed: 'Inko bhagwan ne bahut fursat se banaya hai! So don't even think of improving on it. Just enhance her eyes and mouth, and try and give her a zero-make-up look!'

He grumbled a bit, but got to work.

Her entry on the top of a staircase was mind-blowing. We all stopped and gaped, before getting on with the shoot.

Jalal Agha was playing the dentist, and even he lost his irreverent and nearly constant deluge of 'non-vegetarian' jokes.

The shoot was full of adventure as we finished the indoor segment, including the classic scene with Ash playing Sanju/Sanjana, where I had to get a really inviting posture from her when she appears in the doorway.

I don't know who was more stressed -- her or me.

We tried different postures and finally settled for one hand on the doorjamb, with her hair wet and slicked back as if coming straight from the shower.

Her body was poised slightly provocatively, wearing a pair of beautifully tailored slacks, a silk shirt knotted at the stomach with just a hint of grey-black make-up around her eyes to enhance their unique colour and a touch of deep red on her lips.

The visual result was stunning. Now came the performance and body language.

Since it was Ash's first really big campaign, the pressure and stress really got to her -- and to me -- as we realized that this was the money shot for the entire film and everybody was watching her.

In the beginning, there were many suggestions flying at her from me, the agency, even the client.

We did take after take, confusing and stressing her out, until she just threw up her hands and said she couldn't do it.

She was close to tears.

There was dead silence in the studio; everybody was shocked.

I stepped up, told everybody to shut the f*** up, took her aside and calmed her down.

I told her she was doing fine, but that she just had to imagine a roomful of attractive young men, and to stand and deliver her line, 'Hi, I am Sanjana, got another Pepsi?' as a challenge to them, so that they would leap to it and compete with each other to get her that elusive bottle of Pepsi, even when everything was shut and it was pouring outside.

Listening to me, she burst out laughing.

Taken aback, I asked her what was so funny.

She sobered up and told me that she had been so protected thus far at home that she had neither a boyfriend nor the inclination to have one as she had been focused on her studies.

What I was telling her was as remote as the moon, but she would give it a try.

Boy, did she get into the groove.

Not only did she deliver, she also knocked us all out with her performance.

It took only a few more takes for us to wrap up the scene, and Aishwarya Rai became a part of legend with her four-second debut-to the point that thousands of parents named their daughters Sanjana after the character in the TVC!

Excerpted from Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad by Prahlad Kakar with Rupangi Sharma, with the kind permission of the publishers, HarperCollins India.