Sunday, June 29, 2014

The tale of two Lifebuoy advertisements

A few days ago, I watched two advertisements from Lifebouy - promoting hand washing habits in third world countries, where hygienic practices are just catching up, with growth in education and disposable incomes.

Created by Lowe Lintas, the two advertisements, refreshingly did not highlight the product or its features, but conveyed very powerful messages of the benefits of hand washing.

One set in rural India (Thesgora - a village adopted by Lifebuoy to run its pilot scheme on reducing child deaths due to pneumonia or diarrhea, before the age of 5) and the other in rural Indonesia (Bitobe, near Melang province), the two concepts are truly amazing portrayals of skillful handling of visual media.

Gondappa's Story

This 3 minutes  ad starts with the 5 year-old Muthu running out of his house in the morning to find hand prints in the muddy path leading away from his house. He follows them to find his father walking on his hands along the village's curved  ways. A curious crowd joins this procession. On their way up a hill to a temple, an onlooker from a passing bus, joins the procession which is dancing and singing around Muthu's father's feat of going up the rocky steps on his hands.

Upon reaching the temple, the exalted father informs the priest that his son has reached 5 years that day and indicates that he had just fulfilled the vow to walk up to the temple on his hands when his son survives to his fifth birthday. The curious onlooker from the bus, baffled, gets answered that Muthu is Gondappa's first child to have lived up to 5 years.

A very positive and vibrant approach to the concept has lent the commercial an earthly and rustic feeling. The performances of Gondappa, Muthu, the village elder, crowd, dancing children and the curious onlooker are optimal and the highlight of the commercial is the song 'Naaloru meniyum pozhudhoru vannanum en magan valarugiraan' which runs the entire length of the film.

Capturing the jubilant mood, using only basic South Indian percussions and string instruments, the song in Tamil narrates what parents aspire: a long and healthy life for their children.

Though I liked the commercial for its completeness and positive messaging, there were certain incongruities glaring enough to amaze me on how a world class ad agency could overlook them.

While the story is said to be set in Thesgora - a village in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, obviously the film is shot in Tamil Nadu, a southern state. When the film begins, showing Muthu tracking his father, the passing walls of the houses bear writings in Tamil which clearly establishes the locale and from where the characters belong. Muthu is a Tamil name while his father's (Gondappa) is not which sounds either from Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh.

The BG song is sung in Tamil but characters in the South Indian village speak in Hindi! As Gondappa reaches the temple, the marking on the temple and the priest himself are clearly alien to where the story is supposed to be happening. Very clearly Dravidian looking Gondappa then exclaims in chaste Hindi that his son is 5 years old that day.

What was the expected geo and the target group the agency wanted this film to be marketed to? If the film is meant for South India, then the characters need not have spoken in Hindi. If it has to be in Hindi for the larger North Indian audience, why are the characters named after South Indian men and why a song in Tamil? And why is there a confusion of locales from the beginning to the end of the film?

Nonetheless, the film did move me for its message.

Utari's Story

Unlike Gondappa's film, Utari's is an artistic achievement of great skills in film making.

The 3 minute film details the life of Utari, a young mother, who had lost her child a few years ago. Set in Bitobe, in the Sunda Island of Eastern Indonesia, a fishing village which is now becoming popular for its tourist destinations, the films starts with a Kurasowaesque shot of a village gathering under the parching sun. Utari sensing the heat runs to her hut and fetches water from a stream and waters a tree standing alone next to her house.

The film then goes on to portray how the tree and her life are intertwined: she chasing away buffaloes from eating the foliage, watering, measuring its growth, staying with the tree even when she eats etc. All the while her husband watches her often disapprovingly and once even seems to be scolding her for spending her life with the tree.

Utari buys and makes special playthings and seems to be preparing herself and the tree for a special day. On a classically lit dusk, Utari sits beneath the tree and arranges the playthings, eatables and other stuff while her husband joins her. Instead of chiding her, he tells to go to bed early as the next day was a special day, the tree's fifth birthday. As if to talk to himself, he turns towards the tree and whispers, "Tomorrow is your big day, you will turn five. Sleep well, my son!"

As the film ended there with credits rolling, tears filled my eyes the first time when I watched the commercial. 

We then make it that in Bitobe there is a tradition of marking a tree at the birth of a child and since thousands of children die every year due to diarrhea and pneumonia (5000 to be exact), young mothers like Utari are left with the trees that are marked after their child.

Over subsequent views, I realised that this is indeed a masterpiece in adfilm making. 

There is not one frame or shot in excess. No audible dialogues confirming the universality of the film. Spanning over days, nights, dusks and dawns, the film traverses Utari's timeless bond with the tree and hence her lost child. 

We see a variety of emotions run through the young mother's face - smiling, excited preparation, exasperated in watering the tree under scorching sun, playfully arranging the stuff under the tree and often a whiff of pain when her husband feels that she is neglecting the present (and hence the family) and living in the past...

In the last shot of the film, in which he walks towards her - who is arranging the playthings for the tree's (and hence their child's 5th birthday), her beautiful face goes through a range of emotions - upset when he says she needs to go to bed early, relieved when he says they need to wake up early tomorrow for the big day, happy when he turns and talks to the tree saying that the next day will be a big day and ends with an epic expression which could very well be left unnamed...

Apart from the outstanding photography and editing, the commercial has one of the most original, apt, crisp, moving and native background scores I have seen in ad commercials.

From the high pitched solo Indonesian tribal-sounding male voice to show the desolate village and their lives under the sun in the opening shot to the beautiful rhythm (using Indonesian wood and string arrangements) for Utari's dancing around the tree to the deep bass-filled string in the closing shot where the child's father addresses the tree as 'Nanaaku (my son), there are some six to seven high points in the BG score which are truly marvelous.

This surely is a visual treat to watch, created by a powerful concept, extraordinary performances and high calibre technical craft.

A master class in commercial ad film making!

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