with Gerson Da Cunha: The Stage is Mumbai
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
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
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
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.
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
Keep checking our website for more conversation
with Gerson Da Cunha.