Working in an advertising agency has its perks. Especially, when as a client servicing executive, you are reduced to a telephone operator, creative visualizer and copywriter. All this, because one employee has gone to attend a wedding, the other has fallen sick and the last one has simply quit. The same week, two relatives of the clients' decided to kick the bucket, one client pre-poned his product launch and another wanted a better option for his range of plastic buckets. So my foray into the advertising world was with two obituaries back to back. Epic!
Mid Size agencies, particularly, are a mad house where sometimes you are the matron and at other times you simply enroll in the ward. Unfortunately, clients don’t understand this and can be quite demanding. The thing about them, first, they won’t give a clear brief. Then, they realize they missed a couple of points that need to be added. By then, your presentation is ready but, you need to re do it. And of course, they refuse to acknowledge the time constraints. There is an unwritten rule in advertising. No ad campaign or artwork is ever accepted in the first shot. The brands think the agency always can come up with something better eventually, if pushed harder. The agency, invariably, over the years, have used this as a time buying technique. Never mind if the first concept is what will land up as the final ad campaign. Yup, this is a circus where big bucks and bigger bakras are involved.
The year was 1997. Our esteemed client was sponsoring a show aimed at reuniting and showcasing all the Miss Indias over time. That was the first time I was to meet her. Apprehensive and nervous, I entered the board room with my boss. A bespectacled woman with short, almost grey hair turned around, looked at us and nonchalantly asked us to sit. “Hi, I am Persis”, she said.
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My eyes almost popped out of my sockets. This was ‘the Persis Khambatta’? The one who’d created quite a furor with her modeling career. The one who’d managed a crossover to the elite Hollywood fraternity, at a time when Bollywood was playing Chor-Police. The one who’d shaved her head bald for Star Trek. This was her? The reality of glamour can be quite a rude awakening. I managed to stay frozen for all the time my boss spoke. Her brief was simple. She was coming out with a coffee table book dedicated to all the Miss Indias, since the first, to the present, called ‘Pride of India’. She wanted a summarized introduction of each winner as a script for the event.
This time I was to meet her alone. I gently knocked on the door before entering.
“You’ve got good manners. Get rid of them if you plan to stay in this industry.”
“Second, never be apologetic for something you haven’t done…..the world is a bitch”
Today was going to be a long day, I gathered. She told me Javed Jaffrey would be the master of ceremonies and the event was to be held at the Taj Ballroom. I was handed a rough draft of the book. I got to work. She pulled out a cigarette. Silence.
Two days later, she called for me. She had a couple of changes. I cursed my luck.
“These women are such ******. No one remembers them anymore. I am trying to revive memories here and they show me attitude. ***** of the first order. The newer lot is much better. They know how to work their PR. These old hags are the ones driving me up the wall.”
“Anything I can help with?” I asked, cautiously.
“Light me a cigarette.”
I stood rooted to the ground. A perfect ‘foot in the mouth’ moment!
She looked at me. “You don’t smoke? Good for you”. She grinned. I eased up.
While I sat, editing the script, she kept puffing away. I coughed.
“Is this troubling you? I’ll step out.”
Why do you need to smoke that much? I asked absent mindedly. Too late, the words were out. I waited to be slaughtered.
“It helps me stay calm and deal with the idiots around.”
I almost looked offended.
“Don’t make that face. You have yet to get there”, she said, as if reading my mind. I smiled.
She called and asked me to come over. I went willingly this time. She was not so bad.
“This is fabulous work. If I knew I could edit so much, my book would have been smaller”, she guffawed.
I had never received such open appreciation and that too from a contented client. I wanted to dance.
“Is there anything I can do for you? A new job perhaps? A recommendation to some company you’d like to be a part of?”
I told her I was good, but thanks for asking.
“Nobody is worth your time and effort, but you. Remember, you are indispensable only to yourself. Think about it. When you are alone, 'you' is all you have left.”
Three weeks later, the phone rang at my residence. Dad picked it up.
“Yes, of course. Yes, I understand. That is very sweet of you. She will. Thank you.”
He handed the phone to me. It was Persis.
“I heard from the agency guys that you could not make it as your dad was uncomfortable about the event. Thought I’d call up and ease your old man.”. I could hear the smile in her voice.
“I look forward to seeing you. No excuses.”
“I will be there”, I said with a warm feeling in my heart.
The day arrived. Dad got a driver to drive me to the Taj. I wore a scarlet red gown. This was my first night out ever, without a chaperone. I felt like Cinderella. I reached the venue and entered hesitantly. The Taj Ballroom looked a like a rich film set. The glamour quotient was at an all time high. I felt inadequate. Just then she saw me, walked across and gave me the biggest bear hug.
“You made it, I am so glad. Come, let me introduce you to some snooty bitches”, she said with a twinkle in her eye.
That evening was magical. It was also the last I met and spoke to Persis.
I got busy with a new job. She passed away the following year in August 1998. I lived to regret not being in touch. I think of her fondly, for I feel she shaped my ideologies in those few days. She rings like a voice in my head when I am faced with hard headed nuts in life.
I am indebted to this woman who made that extra effort of calling my dad. Nobody would have missed me. But such was she. Behind that hard exterior was a woman who lived, loved and remembered. This August it has been 14 years she crossed over to the other side. I am sure she is living it up there too.
Persis, you truly were the original 'Pride of India'.
Persis, you truly were the original 'Pride of India'.