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 Home > City Resources > Advertising & Marketing > Gerson Da Cunha

 


 Interview with Gerson Da Cunha: The Stage is Mumbai 

Gerson Da Cunha at  homeGerson Da Cunha is as multi-faceted as they come. He started his advertising career with J Walter Thomson before moving to Lintas. He has been in theatre, advertising, films, and numerous plays, in which he has played both Siddhartha and Othello. 1980 saw him taking up an assignment with the United Nations. He has acted in selected films like Pradip Kishen's Electric Moon and Ismail Merchant's Cotton Mary and more recently, Alyque Padamsee's Begum Sumroo. Then there have been voice-overs for documentaries, ads, and a recent CD with Vanraj Bhatia. Today, he devotes most of his time to the city and its causes, playing a role in organisations like CRY, Bombay First, AGNI, and Oval Cooperage Residents Association.

On a rainy afternoon, in his apartment overlooking the Oval, we catch up with Gerson Da Cunha - actor, adman, and activist.

On sanity: Theatre is what has kept me sane all these years. Acting has been a recreation for me - recreation, mind you, not relaxation. To perform at the end of the day is not relaxing. It asks a lot from you both physically and mentally. But as recreation, it has been both welcome and needed.

On "straight laced Jesuits" and theatre: (Laughing) Xavier's [college] was the place that got me into theatre. The Xavier's Dramatic Circle, to be precise. Ebrahim Alkazi was a senior - actually he had passed out by then - but was still very active in the Dramatics Circle. Sultan Padamsee, Alyque's elder brother, was another senior. Alyque was a year junior to me. Pearl Padamsee was also part of the Circle.

On beginnings as a scribe: I started as a journalist with PTI - Rueters. I worked for five years at their office in Flora Fountain. Advertising was an accident. I was sitting with a friend who was then with J Walter Thomson. Somebody from the creative side of J Walter Thomson was passing by. He asked me whether I was writer. I replied "No, I am a journalist." He was looking out for copywriters for the agency and asked me whether I would be interested in giving a copy test. By that time I was completely disillusioned with journalism and gave it try. Got selected and joined J Walter Thomson as a copywriter. From J Walter Thomson, shifted to Lintas and stayed there for the rest of my career in advertising.

On journalism: I found advertising much more honest than journalism. In advertising, the advertiser knows his job. He uses a certain amount of creativity with the intention to sell a product and makes no bones about it. Journalism also can be creative but makes a lot of claims about itself. It presents itself for what it is definitely not. After five years in the field I knew the inside story and was glad to get out.

On advertising: Advertising has the advantage that whatever you do is subject to the approval of the market. If you do well, you know; if you do not, you cannot escape from it. The market remains the final adjudicator of your work.

On memorable roles and Moors: There was a performance of Othello that I am particularly indebted to. It taught me a lot, both as an actor and a person. Yes, I was painted black, though these days such things may not be considered necessary. I would say that it is essential for Othello to be from a different socio-ethnic group than Desdemona. He does not have to be black, but has to be someone else.To have him from the same ethnicity as Desdemona would go against the playwright. It would be perverse.

On films: I am not comfortable with film. Frankly, it is not something that I notice. For me it does not offer the excitement that performing in front of a live audience does. Plus unlike theatre, the actors are only one of the factors that the director has to deal with and you have to act according to his vision of the movie. Also, I find acting in film more difficult. You do not get to play out your role at a go. Your scenes are shot over time and you have to get into the same character at every stage.

On the world of theatre: It is an incestuous small world, which acts in one another's plays. It helps in the sense that we have known each other for sometime now and are very comfortable with each other. It is a problem in the sense that the experiences of life we bring to our work is limited. Obviously, that limits the work that we do.

On the business scene then and now: It was considered a low thing - to be in advertising. You had to be an engineer or a doctor or something like that. People would not take you seriously. "You make this!" or "You spent half the day deciding whether 'Surf cleans whitest' or 'Surf cleans cleanest'! " Today, here is this extraordinary emphasis on brand building. The product does not seem to be important. You could make the whole ad and then add any product at the end, be it a scooter, a soap or steel.

On UN work: That was interesting. My work for UNESCO had to do with 'Programme Communication'. It involved using the techniques of advertising and marketing to achieve social and humanitarian ends.

On "a physically magnificent city by the sea becoming a decaying slum-ridden megapolis shambling towards destruction." Yes, I did say that somewhere. Yes, I am disappointed. Maybe not with the city or its people, but definitely with its governance. The city is becoming more intolerant, there is a suppression of democracy, it's almost a provincial backwater. You have theatres being broken because somebody does not agree with the film. And the most dangerous result of all this is that the city is seeing an exodus of the wrong kind. Some of the best talents - qualified people who can matter to the development of the city, people in the age group of 18 to 30 - are leaving the city. The city should have a million flowers blooming. Instead it kind of resembles the purges in China when the entire intellectual class was completely wiped out. The effects of it are seen even today in China.

With Tara Deshpande and Ali Khan in Alyque Padamsee's Begum SumrooOn the outlook: The only positive factor is that we are now seeing some action by the citizens of Bombay. There are various initiatives taken by the citzens themselves, be it NGOs or local welfare groups. The idea must be to coordinate with the government departments whenever possible, to let your voice be heard. There is a mobilisation of like-minded people. You should remember that it was one vote that brought down a government. It is such mobilisation by groups like AGNI - Action for good Governance through Networking in India that gives me hope.

Interview: Tushar Uchil
Photographs: Vinayak Prabhu


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