Attention to detail to power narrative devices

Back in January 2018, Ogilvy had done an outstanding ad film for Asian Paints.

It was called ‘Homes Not Showrooms’ and it followed an old father going around his son’s new home along with his grandson, trying to do something on the freshly painted walls.

For instance, when the grandfather was looking for the right spot to hang a painting by the grandson, they find a spot together.

But just as he was about the hit the nail, his son finds out about the plan and requests them not to. Why? “The wall would get spoilt”.

This is a standard occurrence in most homes, more so if you lived in a rented home 🙂

But one crucial nuance, which later finds an echo as the ad ends, involves something that we all do in our homes, usually in inconspicuous places.

Marking the height of growing children 🙂

In the Asian Paints ad, the grandfather’s first attempt is to mark the height of his grandson. But just as he is about the apply a mark on the wall, his son asks him not to – “Kharaab ho jaayegi” 🙂

In the ad’s closure, when the son understands that it’s a home, and not a showroom—thanks to Asian Paints, of course—he asks his father to go ahead with the height marking on the wall for his grandson. The surprised father says, in a brilliant piece of writing, “Looks like your father has grown up!”, implying that he has finally understood that a home’s best decoration is the happiness inside it (as the voice-over conveys) and not just perfectly maintained walls.

More than the nail for the painting, the post-holi entering the house, and the dad’s carefully getting up at the dining table to avoid food spilling on it (since he eats with his hands, unlike spoons that others are seen to be eating with), it was the marking-the-height nuance that acts as the beating heart of the narrative in the Asian Paints ad.

The reason is simple: it’s a lived-in insight and knowledge. It’s a very small nuance that does not get highlighted as often as hitting the nail on the wall (a common no-no instructed by landlords for their tenants). It’s also so small, literally, that it is inconspicuous in most homes. So it’s no wonder this was the nuance used again in the ad to bring the ad to a heartwarming closure.

Interestingly, the advertising world is not the only one to identify and utilize such lived-in nuances. Movies do too!

The marking-the-height-of-a-child-on-the-wall (this gesture surely deserves its own word!) was a crucial plot point in a movie that was released 2 years before the Asian Paints ad. It was so crucial to the plot that it acted as the turning point in the film’s narrative, something spurred a character to a moment of truth and directed his further actions.

The film was the 2016 Telugu film Kshanam (available on SunNXT OTT platform).

[The following paragraphs include the film’s spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, or its fairly bad Hindi remake, Baaghi 2, in 2018, consider yourself warned]

In the film, Adivi Sesh, who also wrote the film’s story and screenplay, plays Rishi, an investment banker in San Francisco. He comes back to India when his ex-girlfriend, Sweta, calls him suddenly, seeking his help. His ex-girlfriend says that her five-year-old daughter, Riya, is missing and tells him that no one believes her, and she is desperate to find her missing daughter.

As Rishi starts to investigate on his own, every single piece of evidence leads him to the assumption that Riya does not even exist. Sweta’s husband informs Rishi that they were childless and that Sweta was attacked by someone and went into a coma. After she got out of the coma she started believing that she had a daughter. Rishi, looking at the details in front of him, including CCTV footage of Sweta’s attack where Sweta claimed she was with her daughter, and there’s no child in the video, starts to think that Sweta is mentally unstable.

The crucial nuance that finally leads him to the truth that Riya is real and is not Sweta’s imagination is… yes, the height markings on Sweta’s home! The perpetrators in the film had scrubbed all evidence of Riya’s existence but had overlooked this tiny detail literally hiding in plain sight in Sweta’s home’s wall because it is so inconspicuous!

So, that’s the turning point of the film because Rishi now believes that Riya exists and the plot chugs along energetically toward the why and what. It’s a highly engaging plot, made even better by Adivi Sesh’s focused narrative and acting.

But even while watching it a few years ago, I was zapped by Adivi’s use of such a small nuance, and his eye for detail, as a plot device. When I saw the Asian Paints ad (after I had watched Kshanam) my mind immediately went back to the Telugu film given the same device being instrumental in its narrative too.

Even more interestingly, there was another, older film that utilized a similar small nuance on a home’s wall as a fairly substantial plot device that informs a moment of truth to a character!

That was a Tamil film titled ‘Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal’ (One home, two entrances) that was made by celebrated Tamil director K Balachander and was released in 1990. The full movie is available on YouTube.

This was what you’d call an ‘art film’ in those days. It was an odd movie in that it had 2 unrelated (characters-wise) stories playing in the first and second half, but connected only by the theme – women finding themselves in tough spots with regard to the men around them and how they navigate that.

In the first half, we have a man, Sukumar, who comes to the location of an upcoming factory as an engineer. He gets housing near the factory venue and a maid, Shenbagam, starts working at his home. The gullible Shenbagam gets seduced by Sukumar and she becomes pregnant too. But when his family arranges his marriage with his niece Yamuna, Sukumar shamelessly asks Shenbagam to leave the house and tells her he’d provide her monetary support. She does so, without the courage to take him on.

Things don’t go well between Sukumar and his wife Yamuna right at the outset given his domineering, chauvinistic nature, and she goes back to her parent’s home in a huff, after a tiff.

At this juncture, feeling lonely, he calls Shenbagam and his son back to his home and they start living there.

After some time, Yamuna comes back in a reconciliatory gesture and is surprised to see Shenbagam and her son there even though she doesn’t suspect anything. Sukumar manages to convince Yamuna that he had felt pity for Shanbagam’s condition since her husband had left her and given her employment.

When Yamuna starts living in the home now, she finds some telltale signs of another woman’s previous presence, like a silver anklet found in the bed. This is fairly large evidence that can also be explained by the husband in some way (“I bought it for you”).

But one crucial sign is the smudges of liquid bindi (called Saandhu Pottu in Tamil) that used to be very, very popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Several brands like Eyetex used to sell this liquid bindi in small vertical tube-like containers with the top having a pointed plastic tip attached inside. Liquid bindi went out of fashion eventually (also thanks to the suspicion that they contain a high concentration of lead) and was replaced by sticker bindis.

When Shenbagam started to live with Sukumar (after Yamuna left the home in a huff), she used the bedroom, and bedroom mirror, as the woman of the house. This also included her wearing the bindi in the morning.

But both liquid bindis and sticker bindis leave signs of their usage in our homes!

With liquid bindis, after women got a perfect circle on their foreheads, they cleared the excess liquid usually with their fingers, and smudged it on the side of the mirrors or the wall area next to the mirror. With sticker bindis, they are stuck on bathroom/bedroom mirrors/sides of almirah, on the sides, and reused for another day! That leaves subtle marks on the mirror or the almirah/shelf that we tend to clean only when whitewashing the home for some occasion, if at all!

In fact, a day after Yamuna’s arrival back home, Sukumar notices the bindi smudges and grudgingly moves a mirror shelf to cover it. But when Yamuna starts the clean the cobwebs at the home the next day, she notices a moved mirror shelf by the clean wall patch and moves the shelf back to find the smudges!

That confirms her suspicions and becomes a fulcrum to turn the narrative in a particular direction. I remember being super impressed by the level of detailing by Balachander back when I first saw this film.

While the Asian Paints ad uses the marking-the-height-of-a-child-on-the-wall activity as a creative device, the films I have written about above use the same or equivalent scenarios in its extreme version – to power intrigue. In Kshanam, that device is evidence of ‘a child was here’ even when every other, larger clue points to the opposite. In Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal, the bindi smudges are evidence of ‘another woman was here’ (in the most private space of a couple). This is typical of movies, to take an ordinary occurrence, place it in the center of a narrative, and mount it as a significant plot-turning device.

Keen observation and an eye for detail always help. Whether in advertising or in movies, details help add specific nuances that could have an outsized impact on the narrative. You may move past the Asian Paints ad without specifically registering the importance of the marking-the-height-of-a-child-on-the-wall activity and even assuming it to be a standard, trivial occurrence in our homes. But when you focus on such details, it starts to bring forth ideas that we can build around.