“We were very worried because Neeraj Chopra seemed to be a little shy. But we met him and he was game about it,” says Ayappa KM, director of the commercial for credit card aggregator Cred, which puts viewers in the shoes of the Olympic gold medallist as he faces off with a menagerie of characters — all played by himself. The worries were misplaced.
Earlier this year, Ayappa had been behind the camera for former India captain Rahul Dravid’s ‘Indiranagar ka Gunda’ turn. Then, he had told this newspaper how Dravid would bury his face in his hands after playing a maniac on the road.
“Neeraj was the opposite of Dravid,” he laughs. “Sometimes he would just break down in the middle of a line laughing. He just wanted to have fun, he was chilling and having a great time.”
The commercial delves into India’s hysteria and excitement buzzing around Indian sport’s newly minted Olympic champion. What follows is the POV of Chopra, with the javelin thrower playing several characters. He is a brand manager in a boardroom meeting discussing SEO-friendly taglines. A reporter with a goatee asking personal questions. A moustachioed cashier apprising him of the day’s gold rate. A filmmaker planning biopics. And a wannabe javelin thrower.
“Honestly, we were all worried because it’s a very acting heavy script,” says Ayappa. “Neeraj has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight at such a young age. Overnight, it’s very hard for most people to know how to react to media. If you see his interviews, his current media presence… But he was very receptive and low maintenance. There was no ego and he immersed himself into the characters.”
Ayappa, who says his personal favourite character was the brand manager — “I’ve suffered managers and conference rooms for many years. I like the office setting, of very serious people in suits talking crap” — shares that the commercial was executed in seven days with elaborate sets built in a Mumbai studio. Comedian Tanmay Bhat and his colleagues at the AIB group wrote the script. On the day of the shooting, the crew had Chopra for eight hours, with the hair and makeup for each avatar taking the majority of the time. But an enthusiastic Chopra made life easier.
“In 20 minutes, we used to bang out a scene. Neeraj said, ‘you act it out and I’ll just imitate you if I get stuck’”, recalls Ayappa. “Tanmay and I acted out the stuff and he got it instantly. By the end of it, he was enjoying himself a lot.”
In less than 24 hours, the video has raked in millions of views across social media, with major props being given to Chopra’s acting skills and the self-referential writing. As the reporter, a jostling Chopra thrusts the microphone forward and asks: “Aapki girlfriend hai? Aapki biwi hai? (Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a wife?) in a nod to the cacophony surrounding him since his gold-winning exploits in Tokyo in August. Ayappa believes that through satire, Chopra is “restoring the balance”.
“I personally cringe at such questions,” says Ayappa. “You come back with a gold medal, and these are the things you have to ask him. So good satire is a way to restore that balance. The commercial is not just coming from a place of wanting to make fun of people. You need to have a big laugh at yourself. Otherwise, you’re screwed up taking everything personally and being an unhappy man.”
Ayappa’s catalogue is filled with commercials that subvert the public image of prominent names. Previously, he directed the 7’2 wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, better known as The Great Khali, as a sensitive soul for a cement advertisement. Recently, he helmed a Shah Rukh Khan commercial, where the megastar is worried about his absence from OTT projects. Then there was the Dravid as ‘Indiranagar ka Gunda’.
The acting skills of Chopra, however, came as a surprise.
“I was quite impressed with the way Neeraj picked up on facial expressions. If you act a certain line and show it to him, he would xerox it. He would replicate perfectly, which is a great thing because he’s not an actor. Only actors do that.”
But Ayappa has a theory on how Chopra acted so well.
“In addition to being young and all that, I think somewhere Neeraj likes cinema and that made him loosen up much more. In that brand manager scene, he suddenly recognised one of the extras and started telling him, ‘Oh, you were in that film’,” Ayappa laughs. “I could see in that second that he was not being a celebrity. He was just being a regular guy who’s suddenly aware that ‘okay, man, I’m in this industry now’.”