Raahil Chopra
Dec 12, 2023

Want a Filmfare and a Film Craft Lion: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

It’s been a little over a decade since Leo Burnett’s ECD left the agency world. In a candid talk with Campaign India, she reveals her experiences since turning director, how she’s walking the talk of attracting more women to the film space, and more…

Want a Filmfare and a Film Craft Lion: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
In an almost hour-long conversation with Campaign India, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, who exited Leo Burnett as executive creative director in October 2013, repeatedly brought up her love for advertising and why she misses the beat so much, even though she’s still very much in touch with it through Earth Sky Pictures and the recently launched Moon.
Tiwari, who exited advertising to pursue film directing, her debut being Nil Battey Sannata, launched her production house Earth Sky Pictures, before launching Moon three years ago to cater to digital advertising.
While the idea to launch Moon was born out of clients wanting more digital campaigns, Tiwari’s urge to be involved with the industry is because it’s 'in her blood and she can’t escape it’.
“The beauty is that most of our friends who we worked with at Leo Burnett and McCann, have gone independent and we have these boutique shops. Nitesh (her husband) and I are in touch with most of them and now life’s coming a full circle as we resume working with them, albeit in a different avatar,” she said.
Speaking about Moon specifically, she explained, “While we have creative writers, we are not a full-fledged creative agency. We don’t want to cross the line and enter the space. We want to be working with advertising agencies. But if there are clients who want us to help with the big idea, Moon comes into place. It is always nice to collaborate with our agency friends. It adds more brains to the idea. One thing is taken care of, which is the client servicing bit because we don’t have those skill sets within the team.”
Advertising’s role in her career
Tiwari owes her career in film-making, which consists of the likes of Bareilly Ki Barfi, to her days in advertising.
Bringing up her friends in advertising once again, she said, “I was working with Amit Akali and Rakesh Hinduja from Wondrlab a month ago. I’d worked with Rakesh at McCann and we’d spent plenty of time working together on campaigns. We were reminiscing about those days – we launched Tata Indicom and worked on Marico, Pears and a lot more. I know Amit because he was with Grey and I was at Leo Burnett, when both the agencies were neighbours and played cricket matches against each other.”
Reflecting on her early days, she said, “I started in 2000 and worked with Aggie (Agnello Dias), Vikram Gaikwad, who taught me everything about design, Pops (KV Sridhar) and Arvind (Sharma) among others. I worked with the best people and were a great team. To manage clients like P&G, launching brands like Fiat, there’s a lot that’s gone into the learning.”
She also stated how Leo Burnett’s ‘flat structure’ led to her fast-tracked growth, with a special mention and request for Kainaz Karmakar.
“We didn’t have any group CDs or art directors. Everyone had an opportunity to do a lot of work. I’ve worked with Kainaz and Harshad (Rajadhyaksha). I owe Kainaz a lot. I had an art background. When I had a good story idea, Kainaz taught me how to write a script. We’re still good friends, although I’ve not directed a single ad film for her. I keep reminding her about this,” she said.
Revealing when the film direction bug first hit her, she said, “Once I started handling Sony, the stories started kicking in. That’s when I started interacting with the feature film-ish storytellers. I worked with Ekta (Kapoor) to launch Bade Ache Lagte Hai. We weren’t just cutting promos. We were releasing proper films. KBC also made a very impactful presence in my life. The ‘Girl Child’ campaign which won all awards, took my direction bug a level higher.”
Women directors and challenges
According to Tiwari, her entry into the feature film direction space in 2015 happened at a time when there were not many women directors around, which was a challenge.  
“Apart from my people who supported me, I had my doubters. There were many creators, but they weren’t helming the camera. Yes, my body of work was also just one short film, and trust had to be nurtured. I’m glad that clients don’t think this way right now,” she said.
Among those doubters was Tiwari’s mother, although she had different concerns.
“My mother was unhappy at that time with my decision. When I left Leo Burnett, I was working on P&G’s account, I had a built-up PF and gratuity too, travelling the world, and going to Cannes every year. But I wanted to try and make sure that more women can come and tell their stories. I knew it would be a struggle, and it was. Things have changed now, and I believe only because of my work. As soon as I left Leo Burnett, I made Nil Battey Sannata. Pops had told me that if nothing worked out, I could return. I was relentless in this pursuit though,” she said.
Going back to how advertising has helped her during this second innings, she said, “No amount of friends you know can help because in the end only your work can speak. Ad films and feature films are two completely different aspects of storytelling. Working on ad films helps you make features. In ad films, you’re so organised and objective in how you look at work.”
“In advertising, you’ve to look at client requirements, the number of seconds to tell the story. There’s a little gloss even though you want realism. Through the years, it takes a lot of hard work to say ‘look at me’ and ‘I can direct ads’. I’m full of gratitude that there are a lot of well-wishers who have worked with me in the past and trust me with their work. I hope this continues because the madness of ad films will never go,” she said.
Bringing back the focus on a recent ad film shoot with Akali and Hinduja, she said, “I thanked the two of them for picking me for their last piece of work. They had a lot of options but they chose me because of what I bring to the table as a partner. More than anything else, I thanked them for picking a woman to direct these ads. This gives hope to so many more women to come to the forefront to showcase their work. We shouldn’t be hired solely to make beauty ads. There are very good, amazing male directors who shoot beauty ads very well. So, we need to go beyond categorisation. I know Amit and Rakesh didn’t think of it in that way when they got in touch with me, but I felt the need to thank them and the client.”
Tiwari has also been quoted in the media for picking projects which rotate around the woman and place her as the protagonist.
She denies that and says that all she wants to make sure is that the woman has a significant purpose and an equal role, something which she attempted to work on from her agency days.
“I have both male and female characters, but I make sure women have equal importance in the journey of their characterisation. With regards to advertising, I’m aware of the creative critique column, Campaign India runs too and hope that helps change perspectives,” she said.
She went on to add that Pops made a deliberate attempt within Leo Burnett to make sure women weren’t just pros in ads.
“Pops tried to change client perceptions more than a decade ago. We had an HDFC Life Insurance campaign – car badi ho gayi and beti bhi (my daughter has grown up and so has my car). Pops made sure that if an ad campaign had three films, at least one had the point-of-view of a woman. That’s how the ‘Mubarak Ho Ladki Huyi' (congratualations on having a daughter) campaign’ also happened. This one was about a girl from Haryana who comes from a joint family, and the idea was to make sure that girls are educated and celebrated. We wanted to push this idea, and what it led to was that KBC had more women participating in the show because of this film,” she said.
But is it being done enough now in advertising?
“It has improved a lot from where it was to where it is now compared to the last two decades. The way women are looked at has also changed. I always say that the changing perception of a society and cultural behaviour comes from the way women dress – and we’re moving from a woman wearing a sari and being in the kitchen, to her wearing pants and kurtas and playing a video game with a son, it’s a huge change, the way men perceive women is also changing,” she added.
Filmfare award or a Lion
Tiwari received a Filmfare award in the ‘best director’ category for Bareilly Ki Barfi in 2018. While that’s considered the gold standard for many, Tiwari continues to be hungry.
Having judged at the International Festival of Creativity, held in Cannes, she wants to get her hands on the Lion for Film Craft.
“I’m greedy and want everything in terms of awards. I want a Lion in Film Craft and a Filmfare award,” she said before urging those following in her path to not mix the two arts.
“As a creative, you can wear various hats. You have to be true to what you’re doing. So don’t mix anything. Making a film is a far more isolated process while making an ad film is a cumulative process because you sit with different people with different point-of-views,” she said.
On the topic, she added, “Ad films increase your craft a lot more because of the limitations. We write campaigns according to the changing type of consumer behaviour. So when you’re doing that, you have to adapt too. That helps you keep in touch with the elements of filmmaking. Filmmaking isn’t just about writing stories, directing and getting actors. There’s a lot more to it.”
Handling celebrities
As Tiwari works with actors in films and advertising, we asked her for her opinion on the same.
“A lot of calls are taking on the brand strategy and how a brand needs to be positioned. Therefore, a certain actor is gotten on board to increase the brand value and reach. There are a lot of actors who do get involved in the creative process too. For example, Amitabh Bachchan in KBC. He goes through every campaign, understands what it is. He’s involved and wants to know his role, the kind of jacket he’s wearing, and a lot more. Bachchan also shares his creative input,” she said.
She wrapped up our conversation with another reference to advertising and how she missed it.
“I’m just happy I’m part of an industry that’s given me so much that I want to give things back now. I want to work with the industry. I miss the fun and banter in advertising. At an agency, to protect your people who come in late, you come up with whacky ideas. I miss this. I miss the chai-tapri friends and the vibe for sure,” she concluded.  
Campaign India

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