A large part of the action in #Thinkistan, a new web series, takes place inside an imaginary ad agency, MTMC – that’s modelled on the Lintas of the 1990s and includes some typical agency routines like lunch at Crystal, drinks at Gokul, slides from Ketan and so on. From copywriters obsessed with crafting the perfect headline to business heads nervous about improving their bottom line, the storyline takes you to an era where life was one unending storyboard and as Paddy’s advertising mentors put it, life was 99% rejection, 1% glory.
In an interview with Campaign India, Paddy, the creator of the series tells that Thinkistan was originally titled IKIGAI, but “an audience beyond the realms of our reach dictated we change it, a battle we inexorably lost to bigger armies than our little own Gandhian one”.
But the larger narrative of Thinkistan is actually the emergence of the small town in India’s growth story, and the conflict and struggle. as a consequence. Ultimately, over a tale spanning over two decades, we realise that ideas have no language and the biggest ideas are the ones that unite us, says the creator.
When you started working on the series, there would have been the constant pressure that people would compare it with Mad Men. What were some boundaries that you carved out for yourself to steer clear of Mad Men?
You would agree that it's nothing like Mad Men. The similarity begins and ends with the fact that they're both set in the same industry. The truth is that I was never wary of this show being anywhere similar to Mad Men. I never needed to be conscious about steering clear from that show. This one's vastly different.
It's about India, the emergence of small town thinking and competitiveness in corporate India, about ideas, class wars, the intricate cultural tapestry that is India, and its infinitely endless nuances. While it's a show about advertising, it's also a metaphor, as you'll discover in future seasons, for the changing values in India, the changing ethos and the currents, and how advertising mirrors all of this as a harbinger of pop culture.
Thinkistan will never ever evolve into a soap opera. It will make strong political and ethical statements through its ideas and its characters, and eventually demonstrate that the greatest ideas are agnostic to community, religion, race, creed, sex and strata. I'm sure you've already noticed that there's a huge number of advertising ideas already in the early episodes and the next few are fairly brimming with both ideas and where they originate from.
The storyboard view of Thinkistan
You had initially named the series something else. Why? What prompted the name change to Thinkistan and what were other names that cropped up in the process?
The original name of the show was Ikigai -- the Japanese concept about your reason to exist. You find your ikigai when you arrive at the intersection or confluence of four factors:
1. What you love doing.
2. What you're good at doing.
3. What can sustain you, i.e. help you make money.
4. What the world really needs.
The show was meant to be called Ikigai, because of this one powerful reason. Brilliant young creative minds enter this fascinating world that offers both opportunity and temptation in terms of influencing the zeitgeist, as well as achieving fame and fortune. But what happens when one achieves that fame and that fortune? That's the point at which you ponder about the very purpose of your own life - your ikigai.
The story essentially is about people discovering their individual ikigai, and using their creative abilities to change the world for the better with powerful ideas. However, the marketing team at Times of India Group MX Player felt it would be too esoteric a name for the masses and that it would be far too expensive to create a campaign to educate them on the significance of the name. Hence we came up with a name that was far more accessible and non-alienating.
The advertising of the mid-1990s in Thinkistan only reinforces some of the gender stereotypes, including objectifying women through jokes, scenes or ad scripts that are debated in the agency. Would the show have been poorer if you had left this out, particularly at a time when the #metoo movement has hit the corporate world and advertising in particular?
We wanted to represent an era when there were many concepts still to be crystallised, such as sexism, sexual harassment, chauvinism, political correctness, male privilege, gender equality, class discrimination, respect for sexual orientation and even smoking at the workplace. Thinkistan explores the evolution of many such areas, and takes the viewers through their evolution. In episode 9, I think, we have a serious exploration of advertising for fairness creams. In fact, the #metoo movement has a huge role to play in one of the forthcoming seasons, for instance.
That implies there be a sequel to the first series of 11 episodes. When do we get to see that?
Season 2 of Thinkistan with another 11 episodes has already been shot and edited. The post and the music will take a couple of months, give or take a couple of weeks here and there. It gets darker, more sinister, and I daresay a whole lot more dramatic, with some serious antagonists, and the actual conflict between the lead characters. Season one merely soft pedals you into this world.
Which character from the series did you most identify with or saw yourself in that person?
In a sense, I identify with Hema in that things came pretty easy to me, such as poetry, friendship and professional progress, as also his South Indian backstory. But I also identify with Anushka and her sense of calm and dignity, with Ashiq Jabeer and his sensitivity, and in the forthcoming seasons, every character's search for their inner truth.
What are some of the most memorable moments in the making of the series?
To start with, it was like setting up an agency of my own. And once it was set up, I needed to have as much fun as the characters I'd written. The pranks we pulled were agency pranks, the language was agency language, and I often needed to be pried away physically from the Table Tennis area. It had become home to every one of the characters, from Mandira Bedi to Dibyendu, to our lead actors Naveen and Shravan, and to each one of the ADs and the spotboys.
What is the agency modelled on? Was it inspired by Lintas post-Alyque Padamsee when the suits had taken over?
It's modelled on Lintas post 1995, very honestly. Many of the characters are, too. A creative-indulgent, benevolent agency, which in Thinkistan, changes quite drastically in Season 2.
Finally, a question that every creative hates. Did you do any dipstick research with the script? Which part of the agency life has changed since the mid-1990s, and what are some things that still hold true?
Times of India did their own analysis on the script, and they informed me that Farrukh Dhondy, their script analyst-in-chief had given my script a big, happy thumbs up. And regarding what's changed in agency life since the mid-1990s, in the 90s, agencies and clients dealt as equals, because the marketing team and the client servicing teams were both from the same IIMs, and the creative teams were free to come up with bold and maverick ideas. However, with the revenue models changing, everything went south steadily, and today, the creative person is her own servicing executive in most cases. What holds true, however, is that old adage - there's no power greater than that of an idea whose time has come.