Cyrus Oshidar of MTV talks about India and about his work. And about how he gets his ideas.
Cyrus Oshidar needs stimulation. Excitement. Passion. That is why he says, ‘The dreariness of a London existence bored me to death.’ A mechanical, sanitized and stuffy environment was clearly not right for Cyrus. Maybe it was a reaction to the one he grew up in – an environment of orderliness and discipline. His father was a banker, and Cyrus spent a large part of his childhood in London. But once he grew up he knew he wanted to come to India.
‘When dad asked me why I was coming to India I told him: Dad, walking down a street in India is a learning experience for me.’ He looks at me and smiles. ‘This is the country! A country rich in sights and sounds. A country with rich cultural diversity. There are 10 promos from here to my house. There are a variety of sounds, faces, emotions, even the shape of people’s teeth is unique. You have to look at these people, all with such expressive faces…neurotic people, angry people…even the moustaches…we have in this country a unique visual candy. The sounds of the street, sounds of ordinary people, bad voices and good voices. We are a country not scared of showing our warts. We are in a country where everything is not perfect. And I love it.’
Cyrus has a thing for observation. Correction. He lives for observation. ‘You have to observe things around you, observe people. Otherwise what’s the point of living? The only reason you don’t observe is because you are blind or deaf. Or not interested in life.’
At first Cyrus, armed with a degree from the London School of Economics, tried to make it London. He did some copy-writing for Saatchi, London. But it didn’t work out. ‘In England, it’s more difficult to be a copywriter than a brain surgeon. And when I actually got into Saatchi, even though it was part-time, I couldn’t believe it. Not that they loved my work. They used to say, ‘This is crap,’ or ‘This is not bad,’ and ‘Do some more like this and we’ll give you a job in six months.’ But I left and joined a bank as I needed the money.’
But Cyrus the banker wasn’t too happy. Writing remained a passion. And then one fine day in the London tube station he saw four of his ads! ‘Those very ads which I’d been told were crap! I went back and tried to get in touch with the guy but I never could. Look, I’m not saying they were great ads and I’m quite clear that they didn’t steal my work. But seeing those ads out there gave me the confidence that I was good enough.’
So he landed up in Mumbai, at O&M. ‘O&M was different then. What Piyush (Pandey) has done is incredible. Changing what was essentially a government office into a creative hotshop.’ Oshidar remembers the British Airways campaign he did for O&M back then, a campaign which won awards year after year. Unfortunately the didn’t keep the ads which he won awards for. At Ambience he did more award-winning work. ‘Remember the guy who jumps out of a plane and coolly pulls out his mobile to enquire what to do as his parachute is refusing to open? And the guy blown out into orbit from the circus cannonball?’ he asks.
Cyrus did not stay Ambience for very long. ‘I think 3-4 years are enough in each place. Secondly, because one felt that one was not moving ahead fast enough. Also, I was rather too happy at Ambience.’ Too happy? ‘Everything was so pleasant, it was becoming too comfortable and not challenging enough.’ Besides, he had had enough of standard advertising. He wanted to do something different. Cyrus’ desire for stimulation was raising it’s head again.
That’s when MTV happened and changed his life. ‘I joined MTV as creative director, MTV India, and helped start the promo department. The job? To direct the creative of the channel with the promos at it’s core. And also the supervision of the creative content across the channel.’
The ‘Filmi Fundas’ concept was his idea. All the packaging and the graphics is what he oversees. ‘I have a brilliant team,’ he adds. We all remember the liftman. The chaiwala. Two of the many amazingly bang-on promos which Cyrus wrote. ‘If MTV is a person,’ he boasts, ‘ I have to be it’s mother. The personality of MTV is a complex one. It’s energetic, irreverent, fun and in many ways encapsulated in the word Enjoy.’ That two-syllable philosophy associated with MTV was one he picked up through pure observation of Indian culture. In a hotel in Gujarat he was once served Chiwda accompanied by this terse instruction. And he decided to relay it nation wide. ‘I knew it was working when a friend of mind came down from England and I gave him an MTV bag. He was walking down in a village outside Jaiselmer with this MTV bag and three street kids went behind him chanting, MTV MTV Enjoy!’ This is more important to me that any crap that I hear from the industry. These things are important signs of getting through to people, and it’s the people who matter.’
What about market research? Does it help? ‘Sure, everything we do is based on research but I am not a huge research freak. What I do is communicate a feeling, get people to smile. In research groups, I have seen people enjoying something and when asked they say they hated it! So there has got to be something that they secretly like that will never show up in that report. I believe that 80 per cent of communication is common sense. Knowing what makes people laugh. Culturally, we give too much importance to facts, and lose track of basic emotions. When just research is used to judge an emotional appeal, I don’t buy it. I would much rather use instinct. However, research is a huge tool in terms of giving you a framework. But if you look at the small print then you are shooting yourself in the head as a creative person.’
So he thinks that his promos connect? Really connect? After all, showing Salaam Bombay kinda ‘flower girls’ and claiming that ‘we are playing your song’ or the Police Academy promo…does this have mass appeal? ‘MTV is not catering to all the hundred million’ he says, but admits that the idea is to reach far and deep and wide. ‘We at MTV show ordinary people, unusual people, people with hairy ears for example. We are definitely not into showing only squeaky clean models. In fact one of our biggest icons has been the 70 year-old liftman,’ says a satisfied Cyrus, clear that reality sells more than gloss. ‘Don’t blind people with style,’ he says, ‘make it friendly and human.’ That is how he reaches out to the youth and entertains them. Ultimately, it’s all about common sense and a joke is a joke. ‘I’m not in the business of being too clever about it. I am not in the business of being subtle and witty. What’s the point? I have read ads about gently rolling hills, the perfect place to kill your mother-in-law! Which country are you writing for? England or India? We already have a humour which people buy into…a sort of slap-stick. Now we have to play with that a bit.’
In fact Cyrus doesn’t even think of himself as a great copy-writer. ‘I think I am an average copy-writer, but I think I do well with MTV.’ Perhaps because at MTV he has the freedom to be himself. He acknowledges that the promos reflect his personality. The liftman promo for example is based on a real-life incident. An irritable old man shouted at him when his car brushed against him in a crowd. This is what triggered the idea of the promo. An obnoxious man with a large ugly nose and hair growing out of his ears who sticks his face into the camera and yells, ‘MTV Made in India eh? This is not Made in India. This is Mad in India. How I’m saying huh? How I’m saying? M.A.D., mad in India!’ The confusion of words like ‘mad’ with ‘made’ and ‘snacks’ with ‘snakes’ is a Gujarati thing, but everyone with a sensibility gets the sharp-edged humour in the liftman concept. Another one of MTV’s popular promos is the maalishwala promo where a man is shown getting a violent head massage. The background is the well-known Hindi number – Eeena, Meena Deeka. The promo had it’s seeds sown a while back when Cyrus took a Russian friend to Lonavala and made him have a head massage in one of the small barber shops. ‘He literally ran away screaming!’ laughs Cyrus. And the chaiboy? A slice from his past. A cheerful little kid who used to serve everybody tea at Ambience. The Hindi film song Yeh Jawani hai diwani used to add a dash of joy to the grim reality of the boy’s life.
Cyrus’ other passion? Tearing off people’s masks. ‘I hate people who try to put on airs and graces, I hate pretensions,’ he says. ‘The Barbie doll’ animation promo, for example was based on a real-life conversation heard in a store where a woman was discussing her husband’s sperm count!! For me, it’s about people. I just see things. I like to see strange things and hear strange things. I collect bags of bad instructions, old circus posters, I collect weird things. I am happy. 80 per cent of the reason I came to India is because it’s rich, visually and culturally.’
Cyrus is sure about so many things but when asked to define creativity, he’s stumped. ‘I find it difficult to answer questions like that,’ he says a trifle annoyed. ‘ I don’t even think of these things. The more you think, the worse it gets’ He doesn’t like labels, and he doesn’t like definitions. ‘I find it embarrassing when I am called the ‘youth marketing expert’ he says. ‘Seriously, the only labels I am comfortable with are two: Bald and hairless.’
He loves his job. ‘I am so lucky, I swear to God, and I’m truly grateful because I get paid to do what I love. And I am free – I don’t have to listen to anyone or anything…I don’t have to listen to some inane statement that the ‘liftman is too old,’ or that his ‘teeth are too broken’. And he has fun too. He has actually acted in a few promos. And done voiceovers. MTV has been a learning experience. He has learnt to write films. ‘Films are not words, that’s what I have learnt. I used to have huge rows with Subir and Nomita of Whitelight. I remember once Subir told me, ‘Why don’t you just shut up and write the words and let us make the film?’ I hated him at that moment but he was a hundred per cent right. This is what 95 per cent of writers in ad agencies don’t or won’t get.’
Cyrus however admits that he resists any attempt to tamper with the script, even now. ‘Like any creative person I think I am pretty much a fascist, and if I conceive it, I see it in a certain way, and if it doesn’t happen like that, it really bothers me.’ But personally, he is prepared to compromise. ‘If ten other people like it and I am the only one who is bothered – ofcourse it will still bother me for the rest of my life – but I can let it go. Because different people have different visions.’
No matter what, he will never stop writing, he says. ‘If I have to stop writing I will leave. I have to be involved in the creative product.’ It’s the old liberty-or-death thing. The future? One of his innermost desires is to make a feature film…
(This was published in A&M, the Advertising & Marketing Magazine. Today, a few years later, Cyrus Oshidar is still very much at MTV. He is the Senior VP, Creative and Content. He also has the responsibility for the kids’ channel Nick. )
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