How Aishwarya Rai was cast in the popular Pepsi ad film with Aamir Khan

Veteran ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakar recounts the details and the drama in his memoir.

In the hustle and bustle of a normal day at Genesis, two young college students with huge architecture portfolio folders strolled into the office to meet Mitali and show her their work – one was Zhya Jacobs, a friend’s son, and the other was his tall, green-eyed friend. My trusty assistant, Monia Sehgal, barged into my room and announced, ‘I’ve found her!’

What? I thought and leapt up to see this goddess. Monia led me to the editing room to see the attractive college girl with her hair tied back and no make-up on. She was wearing a kurti, a pair of distressed jeans (as was the trend) and work chappals, and carried a jhola – nothing earth-shattering.

The thing that arrested my disappointment were her mesmerizing eyes – slate grey and green, depending on her mood. I asked her to loosen her slightly oily hair and out tumbled a mane of wavy, auburn tousled hair. Not bad, but not the jackpot. Not yet.

Monia saw my disappointment through my bland and polite expression, and followed me to my cabin, saying, ‘Just let me test her; she is really quite unique and fabulous.’ I looked at her in grim exasperation, but she said with great conviction, ‘We will give her a makeover. Watch how the camera will love her. I stake my life on it!’

A star is born

She was one of my better assistants and loyal to the core; so, against my better judgement, I decided to go with Monia and see where it led us. Maybe back to square one. But at least she wouldn’t argue so vociferously if she was proved wrong.

I told Monia that I wanted the wet look for one of the tests, with only light make-up on, just her eyes and her mouth, with her hair plastered close to her skull – and bingo! She looked quite stunning because of her bone structure; the camera loved her. We had our showstopper, with a mane of auburn hair and a wet look – both shots were fantastic. It was Aishwarya Rai.

To completely foolproof the plan, we also cast Aishwarya in a short film for Prudent mouthwash. Vidyadhar, the make-up man, was briefed: ‘Inko bhagwan ne bahut fursat se banaya hai! So don’t even think of improving on it. Just enhance her eyes and mouth, and try and give her a zero-make-up look!’

He grumbled a bit, but got to work. Her entry on the top of a staircase was mind-blowing. We all stopped and gaped, before getting on with the shoot. Jalal Agha was playing the dentist, and even he lost his irreverent and nearly constant deluge of ‘non-vegetarian’ jokes.

The chosen one

Off I went to the Pepsi office in Gurgaon to show them our coup. With Vibha out of town, Neal Chatterjee and an assistant took care of the approvals. Neal was an old buddy from our McCann and Nestlé days, so we got along well. In a darkened projection room, I showed them two stills of Aishwarya (Ash) – one with her hair open and one with a wet look.

Neal sat up and asked, ‘Same girl?’ We nodded, turned off the projector and waited. They all looked at me expectantly for more and Neal, a bit chagrined, said, ‘That’s only one.’ I looked at them with great solemnity and said, ‘I am sorry, guys, but they don’t make them like her in twos! You are looking at a future star; enjoy it!’

So it came to pass that Ash was the chosen one and we prepped furiously to make the film a truly Indian experience. Now that we had the cast of our choice, there was no excuse to flub it. The first change we made in the narration was that the 7-Eleven became a kirane ki dukaan about to close for the night, with a rolling shutter, which our hero spots the moment he gets on the landing.

The girl next door is shy and uncertain when she rings the doorbell and asks for a Pepsi. He, though surprised, is pleased to make her acquaintance, but can’t overdo his delight in front of her as he would come across as lecherous. It was very important for him to look very appreciative and clean (in an Indian context, she would never come in if she suspected him to have any ulterior motive).

She checks out his chess set while waiting and tentatively makes a move, a subtle suggestion that she is not a bimbo. Aamir is known to like playing chess.

Aishwarya Rai in the 1995 Pepsi commercial.

All the cars, of course, were Indian with Indian number plates. The final touch was the kirana shop. The most important part of the identity of the film, in my opinion, was the casting.

The combination of Ritu, Aamir and Ash was a minor coup and they were fabulous together. We branded the film even in Aamir’s jump from the balcony into a puddle of water, which reflected the brand name Lehar Pepsi. Aamir sliding under a closing shutter to get the Pepsi is the crowning moment and, now that we know the shop is closed, where the hell is he going to get the next Pepsi?

The shoot was full of adventure as we finished the indoor segment, including the classic scene with Ash playing Sanju/Sanjana, where I had to get a really inviting posture from her when she appears in the doorway. I don’t know who was more stressed – her or me.

We tried different postures and finally settled for one hand on the doorjamb, with her hair wet and slicked back as if coming straight from the shower. Her body was poised slightly provocatively, wearing a pair of beautifully tailored slacks, a silk shirt knotted at the stomach with just a hint of grey-black make-up around her eyes to enhance their unique colour and a touch of deep red on her lips. The visual result was stunning.

Now came the performance and body language. Since it was Ash’s first really big campaign, the pressure and stress really got to her – and to me – as we realized that this was the money shot for the entire film and everybody was watching her.

In the beginning, there were many suggestions flying at her from me, the agency, even the client. We did take after take, confusing and stressing her out, until she just threw up her hands and said she couldn’t do it. She was close to tears.

There was dead silence in the studio; everybody was shocked. I stepped up, told everybody to shut the fuck up, took her aside and calmed her down. I told her she was doing fine, but that she just had to imagine a roomful of attractive young men, and to stand and deliver her line, ‘Hi, I am Sanjana, got another Pepsi?’ as a challenge to them, so that they would leap to it and compete with each other to get her that elusive bottle of Pepsi, even when everything was shut and it was pouring outside.

Listening to me, she burst out laughing. Taken aback, I asked her what was so funny. She sobered up and told me that she had been so protected thus far at home that she had neither a boyfriend nor the inclination to have one as she had been focused on her studies. What I was telling her was as remote as the moon, but she would give it a try.

Boy, did she get into the groove. Not only did she deliver, she also knocked us all out with her performance. It took only a few more takes for us to wrap up the scene, and Aishwarya Rai became a part of legend with her four-second debut – to the point that thousands of parents named their daughters Sanjana after the character in the TVC!

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