Kannan. Was that his name?? No. But I’ll keep it that way even though I remember everything about him quite distinctly, except whether the mole on his face was on the left side or the right. Actually I think I even know that.
Kannan was a photographer that anybody would like to forget. His brain was forever engaged in finding different answers for the ‘What am I doing in life?’ question. Which then progressed to the ‘What is life all about?” question. And then the “Who am I? ” question. And other such fashionable problems.
But Kannan wasn’t convinced till he had found his own answer.
His pop had given him a big bungalow and pots of cash to do what he pleased. But Kannan had chosen to waste his time on a topic like this that shouldn’t have concerned his life.
I strongly believed at that point, that the sole rights to this topic belonged to AEs. (For all those not in advertising, AE is Account Executive. Again for all those not in advertising, you are wasting your time reading this, because I assume you have a life. Leave now…. Go to ebay and order a nice book.)
Where was I? Oh yes….according to me AEs had patented this topic, and I had a problem with Kannan stealing my topic, my question, my problem. Yes I was an AE that time. And a pretty bad AE. Ok a very bad one. Ok a horrible one (…keep going down in that order).
I had spent many nights thinking about this nonsense. And then to suddenly meet someone else pondering over this crap made me feel cheated.
I was possessive about this state of mind.
You know as AEs we competed on a different platform. We had our own little competition. A competition involving our screwed up lives. Where the point system was based on the quantity and the degree of screw-ups that you were in the middle of. The more screwed your life, the higher the points you got.
Now getting a photographer intrude into this space was unacceptable. I mean, he had no reason to crib. He had no clients breathing down his neck. No artworks to chase. No hotels to book. No bookings to cancel. No couriers to despatch. No nothing. All he had to do was frame a picture. And shoot.
And on top of that he was rich.
Like most photographers, he had a nice looking studio with nice white walls, till he decided to spoil them with enlarged prints of the pictures he’d taken. Morbid, dark and desolate pictures that forced you to contemplate and participate in the depressing mystery that surrounded it. But all you were entitled to say were nice things like “hmm..interesting” and “Hmmm..deep” and ‘hmmm…aha” or some intelligent sounding variation of that.
The pictures were scary and put you in doubt about your own understanding of life and why it hadn’t reached such levels of inner search.
Like a nude women with a half bitten apple wrapped in barbed wire and staring at a pigeon.
Or another lady in tattered clothes sitting on a borewell, holding a spinning globe. And yes, only the globe was in colour.
Or another lady painting a rat trap. Or something that was somewhere between a rat trap and a steam engine.
And more such insane concepts that brought together women and unrelated props to suit Kannan’s gloomy introspections. Where each prop was burdened with some hidden meanings that only Kannan could explain.
Every picture was a teaser that taunted you, so that Kannan could launch into his tragic stories, about how life had been so unfair to him. The explanations were suicidal in nature.
“You’ll come. You’ll get your picture taken. And you will leave. And what you are taking with you is a part of my soul. That’s the reason I choose to keep my studio empty. So that I can start everyday with this emptiness. Photography is not an art anymore. It’s just business. Where I sell my soul everyday.”
That was the explanation he offered for the first picture.
“Where is the loo?” I asked.
After he gauged my reaction, he decided to divulge his discoveries of life only to someone who could understand his inner suffering. A kind of pathos which he believed only a creative person had.
This was his little canvas with which he tried to convey the ‘look what I can do, and instead look at what I am doing’ feeling.
So, Kannan was a creative guy. Who chose photography as his canvas to portray his creativity.
And I was the servicing guy. Who chose advertising as my canvas to exhibit my stupidity.
And destiny had decided to make us meet. Advertising is perhaps the only place that encourages such experiments and also expects great results out of it.
Kannan had compiled some of his inexplicable pictures, added some dates to it in 90% black on black so that it could become a calendar. And had sent it to all agencies expecting these modern day puzzles to find connect with some art director in distress.
I had seen many such calendars arrive in the agency.
And noticed the minuteness with which art directors would critically review these pictures, and comment about the mood, the lighting, the lensing and debate endlessly before deciding to part with that assignment of a tabletop shot of a mixie.
Ya, but they were a strange lot.
Creative guys were always very fussy about the kind of calendars that they put up on their desks. They would not change the month if they didn’t like the next picture. So, it would always be on the wrong month, but always on the right picture.
We AEs gave a damn. We’d proudly display every freebie on our desks even if it carried some loud branding of some printing press. Or for that matter even if it was the picture of the printing press. Nothing really mattered. And if we hadn’t yet changed the month, it was only because we hadn’t returned back to our desks from the studio.
As an AE you only lived for these perks. Free calendars, magazines, passes and discounts on the brands you handle. And ofcourse that free sweet dabba during Diwali from Kanti sweets, that some vendor had sent, so that we can trace his long pending invoice that was lost within the agency.
So in the middle of all this, Kannan’s calendar landed on my desk. I hated all the pictures. But the only thing I loved about it was the timing of its arrival.
I had a project to be shot. The kind that noone would want to shoot.
A project to shoot tiles. Outdoor tiles.
It was not the tiles that were boring. It was the fact that it was only the tiles. Just the tiles and nothing else.
Plain outdoor tiles with no women in satin gowns caressing it.
No photographer who’d have wanted to be called one, would have touched a project like this. But Kannan had yawned enough in his empty studio feeding his assistant and listening to French and German opera on his Bose surround speakers. He’d invested enough in the studio, and promised enough women a portfolio that could change their lives. But soon he realised that if he had to make a living, he had to shoot generators, pumpsets, UPS machines, cement bags and probably tiles to make enough money to keep those models returning to his studio. And ofcourse continue feeding his starved assistant.
Kannan was the most boring man I had ever met in my life. Even more boring than the tiles that he was meant to shoot. He was the perfect explanation for why it was called ‘menopause’ and not ‘womenopause’.
He suffered from intense depression after he had decoded the meaning of all the lyrics that he had been listening to in all those alien languages. And to add to that he had a huge collection of movies from around the world that carried complicated human stories inside those seemingly innocent titles.
All this exposure had pulled him down so badly that nothing could bring him back to life.
But Kannan was convinced that some art director in this universe would have mind-fucked himself similarly, with whom he could bond and share his sickening hallucinations. And they could sit together in Neptune and discuss their experiences in a language that is not understood by mediocre earthlings.
All he got from all those calendars was a cheapie AE who came to him only because he got a free calendar. And he also had a disputed deadline with an art director who cared more for mankind and world peace and harmony than a brochure deadline.
It was me. With my orphaned brochure that had no room for any value additions from anyone who was remotely creative.
Kannan had accidentally sent me his calendar of nude women, irritatingly concealed by his sense of aesthetics in the hope of getting some job.
And as he should have liked it, I came to him with a job, following the address in his calendar which was in 2 point size.
Kannan opened the door himself. And I looked out for Kannan hoping that the man who opened the door was not him.
He had a drooping moustache with a symmetric mouth drooping underneath. That created an effect on his face that put immense pressure on the other person to make the conversation interesting. And since he spoke little and refused to emote, anything you said was greeted with this default expression on his face. Even when he smiled, his mouth curved downwards.
Since I was facing his face for the first time, I spent 30 minutes before I discovered its limitations. I had wasted some of my best jokes and ice breaking techniques in that time.
But Kannan sat there like a ‘I’m sad’ emoticon.
And the worst part was that I had not even given him the bad news.
“Hmm…Who’s the art person?” Kannan enquired figuring out that I wasn’t one.
“Hmm…What’s the job?”
“We need to shoot tiles.”
“Hmm….What’s the concept?”
“The concept is to show tiles.”
“That’s not a concept.”
“Ok. We need to show our tiles without any concept.”
He was in no mood to accept any project that did not explore everything that his SLR’s ‘operation manual’ had to offer.
“How can you not have an art person? And how can you not have a concept?” Kannan asked me like he had been absent from reality for a while.
I proved to him that such a thing was possible, by showing him a copy of the brochure that the client had orgasmed over. An approved dummy made by the art director who had gone on leave because it had got approved.
An 8 page brochure that had different tiles arranged from page one to page eight. The cover shot was the most innovative of the lot, where the client had allowed us to show something more than the tiles. Like the mud and grass surrounding it. It was a shot of the tiles in location. A picture to indicate its usage.
It had taken us 18 attempts to arrive at this supreme masterpiece. The previous 17 were bombed because the creative folks, instead of doing their jobs, had tried to be creative with it. It took us 18 meetings of prolonged discussions on cinema, music, art, culture, food, dolphins and freedom fighters to conclude that this brochure had to refrain from anything discussed during those meetings.
The copywriter had started with poetry. And the client had shot it down and replaced them with about a hundred bullet points.
I tried making Kannan appreciate the simplicity of the task in hand.
“Well, this is what it is. They are outdoor tiles. And we need a cover shot that shows where these tiles can be used.”
And then we observed a ten minute silence. Perhaps, it was for the death of creativity. In that ten minutes Kannan demonstrated the other variations of depression his face had practiced.
“How uninspiring” Kannan tossed the brochure aside and increased the volume on his Bose that was playing some soul stirring orchestra from Buddha Bar, to create a mood where creativity could prevail.
Kannan ordered his Somalian assistant to get some beers from the refrigerator.
“I come from a middle class background. My father passed away at a young age. They sold my ancestral home at Kerala. My mother brought me up. I never listened to her. I still don’t. She has not yet visited my studio. But I know that she loves me.”
I was waiting for the part that connected this heart wrenching story to the job in discussion. I had to invent a new emotion that masked my bewilderment, anxiety and boredom together. I swallowed a fake lump in my throat, gave a half grin and raised my eyebrows to look interested.
Kannan had a connection. “These tiles resemble the ones that we had in our courtyard. You know what. Don’t look at them as mere tiles…..give them wings. You understand imagination….!!” he asked me, missing that creative person who could have appreciated his sarcasm.
Kannan’s assistant brought the beers to intoxicate me back to the world of creativity.
Kannan opened up his beer, and started giving wings to his imagination that got more and more eccentric with every sip.
By the end of five beers the tiles were soaring high, and had travelled across mountains, forests, oceans and were now taking the shape of sand dunes in a desert.
“Just like the sand in the desert, it takes on patterns that men cannot dream of…..ah!…..you know we always lose when we want to compete with God.”
I posed for him with my jaws open. I let him think it was awe. But it was more to be in a ready position to guzzle the free beer.
Kannan’s assistant opened bottles after bottles as Kannan saw in me a perfect listener who had no disagreements with his point of view on life, advertising, creativity, music, tiles and everything in general.
Yes, even I was getting high. But I wasn’t allowed to trip along with him….however much I wanted to.
I had learnt that an AE’s job was to listen. And shut his trap. A previous boss had given me this dumb advice to be dumb. “Remember, an AE who does not open his mouth, gets his job done. Pretend like you don’t understand what they are saying, even if you do. It’s a trap that they are laying out. Don’t give in. And don’t argue. Because if you do, they will win. Every great quote of wisdom favors them. All that the great wise men have said before, happen to take their side. You are alone. Your only weapon is your dumbness. And believe me, it is the strongest weapon you have. In reality, dumbness works like nothing else does. It’s sad that there have been no great dumb people. In spite of so much dumbness around you. But the truth is that we rule. They are the underdogs, wanting, craving and dying to be the exceptions in this world. Thankfully, we have no such illusions.”
So I reran this little motivational speech in my head and sat there patiently travelling with Kannan’s mind journey. I sat there trying to be quiet.
“These tiles are not just tiles. They are like ..like..clay..waiting to be moulded by imagination. What do you say….see customers are not dumb, they’ll get it.” Kannan continued with enthusiasm.
Customers are not dumb. I had heard this line a million times in the first few years of advertising. I was beginning to lose my patience. The perennial argument. It was getting impossible to find new words everytime to fight the same old battle.
I explained to Kannan that the very fact that the customers had to shell out twice the money of a regular tile already meant that they had to be dumb. I tried convincing him that in this particular case, the target audience was anyone who is dumb. And since they are dumb already, the brochure needs to be equally dumb. So that they can relate to it. And that was my insight.
“Dumb guys respond to dumbness. And you are being smart by recognizing this dumbness. Look around you. How many guys do you come across who you think are dumb? See even I am dumb.”
Kannan hated this indisputable logic. He missed a creative person on the job even more than I missed one.
But I had to protect this brochure from getting corrupted by creativity. I had to stop Kannan’s music, movies, ancestral property and every other influencing force that was driving him.
I explained to Kannan that the brochure was nothing more than a visual guide for anyone to know where they could use these tiles. And since these tiles were outdoor tiles, the client had decided to show its usage on the cover, by putting a picture of the tiles laid out in an amusement park called Niladri Water Park, somewhere in the outskirts of the city.
“Niladri Water Park!!” Kannan gasped like I was asking him to shoot in the public loo of Kalasipalya.
“Ya…that’s the place. It’s an amusement park that is opening soon. And the place has these tiles all over. It kind of gives an idea to customers on where they can use it.”
“In an amusement park?”
“Ya…this is an amusement park..but it more or less tells you where you could use them. Like in your garden, parking lot etc.”
“Why the heck would you want to go all the way there to shoot these goddamn tiles…oh this is bizarre.”
Kannan believed that this outright denial to be a part of common sense would automatically slot him alongside Van Gogh and Rembrandt.
“For Christ’s sake..why would you want to do something like that?” Kannan called upon a cooler Lord to intervene.
Kannan brushed his long hair back and walked towards the window and drew the curtains letting in a shaft of light and posed against it…resembling a shot I had seen in one of his calendars.
And sulked for the next 15 minutes.
And calmed himself down with the hymns of Buddha that were playing on the speakers, and finally gave in. Probably the hymns translated as “there is money in it…and Kannan you need the money now.”
After about 20 minutes of pensive silence, Kannan returned with this shameful wisdom.
“OK. I’ll do it. When do we have to go?”
“In a day or two”
Now that the deal was sealed, I relaxed and began to enjoy the music without any pressure of being concluded as an appreciator of creativity and suffer the risks associated with it.
“Can I borrow this CD?”
“You like it??” Kannan jumped back in the hope that his rejected imaginations could find their way back into this brochure.
“No No…it’s ok actually. Do you listen to Baba Sehgal?”
“Let’s keep the shoot for day after”
………………To be contd.
(This story is part fiction and part facts. And all the portions that sound like bullshit are facts.)