Farewell, Alyque Padamsee, the original mad man of Mumbai

A titan of the Mumbai ad world is no more. Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Alyque Padamsee lived the Mad Men life, epitomising the crazy, eccentric genius — you could call him the masala version of Don Draper.

By Madhuri Iyer

 A titan of the Mumbai ad world is no more. Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Alyque Padamsee lived the Mad Men life, epitomising the crazy, eccentric genius — you could call him the masala version of Don Draper. This was a man who essayed some memorable movie characters (he famously played Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi), masterminded mega-hit musicals and theatrical productions, was a Padma Shri award-winner… and just happened to be a high-profile ad man too.

In erstwhile Bombay, when personality cults were the order of the day, it was an era when legends ruled. Even more than a reputed agency, copywriters and visualisers sought out mentors to shape our careers. Which rookie trainee wouldn’t want to learn a thing or two from the greats?

As a creative director in the 80s and 90s, I was fortunate enough to work with icons like Bal Mundkar, Sylvie Da Cunha, Nargis Wadia, and yes, Alyque Padamsee. Through this period, I worked on creative concepts – this meant writing copy and working on TV commercials for a slew of  top brands. Each of my bosses was a towering presence, with formidable successes in the competitive, cutthroat world of advertising.

Even in this pantheon of luminaries, one man stood slightly taller than the rest – Alyque Padamsee, who, in Lintas circles, was referred to as “God”, usually behind his back. His tall, stooping figure, larger-than-life persona, and penetrating gaze behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses, were trademark Alyque. (By the way, we often wondered why he spelt his name that way, but I for one, never dared ask.)

If anyone got a call into his cabin, it was time to straighten up, clear your throat, and hope for the best. Make no mistake, he could be charm personified. However, if he didn’t agree with your point of view, or you didn’t agree with his, finally, it was Mr Padamsee who called the shots.

I always felt that Mr Padamsee’s theatre background fed his creativity as an ad man. Anyone who’s seen the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita, will understand the depth of his creative vision.

I recall in the early ’90s, I was working on the new Liril ad campaign. After running through hundreds of contact sheets, we’d finalised the new Liril girl. Mr Padamsee was okay, the client was okay, we were good to go. The shoot was scheduled for Kodaikanal, the waterfall destination where the Liril girl frolics to zingy music and drives the sale of soap and national testosterone levels off the charts.

At the eleventh hour, however, Mr Padamsee pulled the plug on the girl. The model wasn’t right, he said, because she looked ever so slightly – there’s no way to politely do this – “chinky”. She couldn’t be the new Liril girl, she wouldn’t be accepted by the general public. Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, even God would be left guessing. All I knew was it was going to be an all-nighter finding a new girl and still making the schedule to Kodai.

In present times, an objection like that is blasphemous on several counts. Back then, no one really took a stand. It’s not that we didn’t feel for the girl, because we did. But frankly, once Mr Padamsee decreed, it had to be done. Arguing wasn’t an option. But then, this was a man who could make uncomfortable choices – and stick by them. Such as spearheading the campaign for India’s first fairness cream.

Unlike Don Draper though, Mr Padamsee wasn’t the most sociable boss around. This was a time in advertising, when every time an agency won a new account, they’d all end up at a raucous celebration at a five-star hotel, exactly like they did in the show. This was a time of privilege, with a touch of decadence. That, however, didn’t happen on Mr Padamsee’s watch.

I always felt that Mr Padamsee’s theatre background fed his creativity as an ad man. Anyone who’s seen the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita, will understand the depth of his creative vision. These productions were so lavishly mounted, so superbly enacted, that for the first time, India could compare itself with Broadway, or the West End. Each show was closely monitored by Mr Padamsee himself. His was a multi-dimensional talent, not restricted to the narrow world of advertising. For example, I hear it was Mr Padamsee who re-positioned dreary old Parel into Upper Worli. Overnight, Upper Worli became posh enough for ad agencies like Lintas to move into.

There were rich creative pickings to be had from all the bosses I ever worked with. Alyque Padamsee was never an active mentor, like some of the others. However, just watching him, as he picked holes in a piece of creative work, or praised a campaign, gave me some amazing insights. Once, I remember, I’d presented a one-minute TV commercial to him. I’d scripted in the latest special effects, which, to my mind, were pretty kickass for those times. He read through the whole thing, and then just turned to me and asked a simple, unnerving question: “Where’s the story?”

I can’t remember what became of the campaign, but the one thing I learnt that day was that ultimately, we are all telling stories, all the time. Whether it is through a book-length literary work or a one-minute commercial, you can’t hide behind special effects if the story doesn’t work. Simple as it sounds, this is something so many of our creative people still don’t seem to get (hello, Bollywood.)

Now every day when I fire up my laptop, I ask myself this one single question: Where’s the story, stupid? It always works.

Thank you, Mr Padamsee. Someday, we’ll know why you spelt your name Alyque. Rest in peace.

Madhuri is a bestselling author, known for her novels Manhattan Mango and The Strongman’s Daughter.

This article has previously been published on Arre.