"Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf." ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Faces of India
Ad film-maker Mahesh Mathai

Romola Butalia recalls the Labrador and the Boxer who greeted her before she met Mahesh Mathai at his office a few years ago.

Ten in the morning and at the reception, the flowers are being decorated. The occasional person walks in. The early morning round of coffee is on offer. Prints in vivid, vibrant colours cover two walls of the lounge. A large fish tank, a sample of ads, a collection of vases, a TV monitor displaying visuals : all have a personalised atmosphere of quiet happening. A lively Labrador bounds in with a degree of obvious restraint. He greets everyone, sniffs around and wanders in - a junior exec.? He is followed closely by a Boxer who takes in the scenario at a glance, as he walks imperiously into his chamber - definitely the CEO. The Boxer's entry marks another day begun in the offices of Highlight Films.

Faces of India
Pilot Baba
Shabana Azmi
Amitabh Bachchan
Swami Vivekananda
Atul Dodiya
Rakesh Mehra
Kiran Nagarkar
Lakshman Shreshtha
Zakir Hussain
Mahesh Mathai, who started the outfit, reclines comfortably back in a glass-fronted chamber. The office is aesthetically decorated - an even balance of creative flair and professional management. The dogs belong to him and attend office whether or not he does.

It all started some 20 years ago, when Mathai, fascinated by the idea of film-making, was rejected at an interview by the Film Institute. He was sure he did not want to make Hindi films with which he could not connect. It was a time when he, like 'most everyone else associated documentaries with that boring black and white crap one was subjected to before a film. He was attracted to the commercials which he enjoyed watching and which outlined a sense of fun.

Hoping to learn the ropes, he walked into Genesis, Prahlad Kakkar's production house, and was told to return in two weeks when Kakkar would be back. Fascinated by the editing room at the back with it's cans of films, he asked if he could just hang around the office till then. Kakkar's two weeks characteristically extended to three months, by which time Mathai's continued presence was a fait accompli. Spending two and a half years there, Mathai recalls, "It was a great learning place."

In the early 80's the ad world in India was dominated by a handful of greats and a great deal of mediocrity. Mathai seized the opportunity to jump into business. " I was young and foolhardy," he says. The big break came with the Chancellor launch for which Mathai was trusted with the commercial. It was a classy ad. with Pataudi as the model and a budget of one and a half lakh rupees to produce it. With sixty thousand in the bank, Mathai felt the huge responsibility of doing a good job. He delivered.


Next was a hugely successful campaign for Vareli with Persis Khambatta : "You fascinate me." The concept was novel in those early days of empowerment of women. It was a glossy ad that looked good. And Mathai in his tiny office in Worli had arrived. The shift to his spacious, personally designed premises in Bombay's posh Altamount Road came some eight years ago.

Here, he operates along with veteran Prasoon Pandey who did time as Creative Director, Lintas before switching to film-making, and Srila Chatterji - a product of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, whose management skills have shaped the way things are. Srila and Mahesh are married - but that is neither here nor there.

When Cadburys Dairy Milk started a new award -winning ad campaign, there was no change in product, pricing or distribution. There was no simultaneous print campaign. There was a 30% plus increase in sales, for which Cadburys publicly acknowledged the contribution of their advertising agency, Ogilvy and Mather who were looking after the account since 1948. The ad film-maker who was responsible was Mahesh Mathai.


If you can hear a hundred pipers playing, and catch trout with the mind, the film-maker behind the Seagrams ad is again Mathai. Conceived and executed in India, the commercial was shot in Ooty using professional actors flown in from London. Other successful films from Highlight Films include the Ericsson mobile phone ad, which received international recognition when it bagged a coveted award at Cannes. Likewise, the Cielo ads had been made by Prasoon Pandey of Highlight Films.

Says Mathai, "Music videos provide an alternative kind of film-making." Mathai's own award-winning visualisation of Lucky Ali's debut performance "O Sanam" immediately comes to mind. Mathai believes the time is now ripe for feature films with a little more head space as opposed to mainline Hindi cinema. His debut film as a feature film-maker, created waves. Bhopal Express, is set against the backdrop of the Bhopal gas tragedy which immediately claimed 6,000 lives while 10,000 more died subsequently and some 50,000 were maimed for life.

Mathai fondly remembers his childhood and the years of growing up at Bandra and attending school at Bombay Scottish. The three years at Wilson College are described differently, "It was a complete waste of time from every point of view. With zero vocational guidance, and lacking the motivation to find out what the options were, I drifted through the college years."

Racial and religious biases bug him, as does hypocrisy. "When governments allow the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, it's a hypocritical stance to ban advertising." It doesn't bother Mathai to do tobacco or alcohol ads, but he will not do an ad for a skin fairness cream. Pointing out that the rationale behind taking a position is what you believe in, he says, " In South India, where I come from, their minds are getting f...ed believing that fair is better than dark."

Assessing his strengths and weaknesses, Mathai admits that he is less decisive than he would like to be. He feels his strength lies in the fact that " a lot of me is in my profession." What does he enjoy about his profession? " I have learnt about film-making through it. I've worked with some good minds in striving for excellence in visual communication by pushing the limits of what one can do." Describing himself as more intuitive than rational, he explains that in creating visual images, he operates from feelings.

Other than work, Mathai loves travelling. "For a long time I was a mind-traveller. Growing up in a middle-class family, there isn't a lot of money left beyond education and food. I don't have a problem there." But the romantic image of the back-packer remained. Mathai had plenty of opportunity to travel both in India and abroad in the course of his work and while little of it was literally with a ruck-sack on his back, in his mind's eye, there is still a back-packer travelling through life. Says Mathai, "The journey itself is the destination. The great thing about travelling is that you are interacting with people from all over, and what you share is a search for a higher sense of being."

Home | Back | Top | Feedback

Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.