Vinod Mehta is – can’t get around to using the past tense for him even now – one of the best editors India has ever produced. A man with an enviable body of work driven by brilliant writing ablity and rare editorial integrity, convictions and independence, Vinod will remain a great inspiration for student, practitioner and consumer alike of journalism — indeed, content creation of most kinds for every platform of content delivery.
He wrote what, to my mind, is the best, most insightful and personally and professionally profitable read for anyone aspiring to be a journalist and editor. It is his introduction to a collection of his writings, and at present I am working on putting it together. It is extremely long for one piece, but there is absolutely no way anyone who begins to read it will want to stop or to have to wait for a Part II of several to be published, so I’ll put it up very soon, in its entirety, on mediabrief.com.
But while you wait for it, here, for a good weekend read, is something else that the great Vinod – a personal friend, mentor and guide – had written on my invitation close to a decade ago. I’m reproducing it here for the wonderful weekend reading pleasure I know it will give to aficionados and lovers of the written word and quality journalism in India.
Over to the peerless Vinod Mehta:
The advertising profession has done me many favours. The biggest being the sack when I attempted to make a hasty career in the industry. I arrived in Mumbai in the mid 70s, undereducated and over-opinionated, desperately in search of dal-roti. I gravitated towards one of the two vocations much in vogue those days. Since I was genetically unsuitable for modelling, I wormed my way into an advertising agency and emerged as a copywriter. I had an untidy beard, kept long hair, sported khadi kurta-pyjamas, wore Kolhapuri chappals and drank copious amounts of Hercules XXX Rum. You could say that I had all the attributes of becoming a top-notch creative person. What let me down was talent. I was a sensationally mediocre copywriter.
You could say that I had all the attributes of becoming a top-notch creative person. What let me down was talent. I was a sensationally mediocre copywriter
I doubt if I will ever be inducted into the advertising Hall of Fame, but I did write one headline which acquired fleeting notoriety, if not fame. Filmmaker Shakti Samanta and Rajesh Khanna had started a discotheque at Hotel Hilltop in Worli called “Hell”, and in a fit of raging inspiration I conjured up the memorable line, ‘Go to Hell’ – which appeared over a sketch of skull and bones. Not quite in the Salman Rushdie “naughty but nice” class but in my humble book, not bad. As you would expect, soon after the campaign bearing my signature broke, the disco closed down. Some weeks later, the agency head spoke to me and suggested it was time for me to pack up. There was a distinct menace in his tone. I took the hint.
Proprietors, publishers and editors who think sucking up to advertising honchos pays dividends should remember Frank Simoes’ words
I was living in a Graham Greene kind of boarding house on Wodehouse Road called Buckley Court. Its colourful tenants included Armenian revolutionaries, aspiring actors, high class call girls, Jews waiting for Israeli visas, and an out-ofwork Hindi film comic called Wasti. He used to get pissed on country liquor every evening and regale me with dirty stories about Madhubala. Bliss! But the room rent was 11 bucks a day!
Why Susheel Somani made me Editor of Debonair in 1974 I shall never know. Pity may have played a part, or it could be because the two existing Editors responsible for the title, an English speaking homosexual Italian count and the gay activist Ashok Row Kavi, altered the girlie magazine formula: they printed more pictures of pretty men than pretty women. It was an audacious move. Alas, the “public” did not approve, and as we know, the public always wins.
Besides evicting me, the advertising industry helped me get my second job, which allowed me to launch (in 1981) The Sunday Observer, India’s first Sunday paper. I say without any hesitation that The Observer is the one publication among the many (too many?) I have put together which has given me the greatest professional satisfaction. However, without Frank and Mike and half a bottle of Red Label, I would have been denied the pleasure.
With enormous difficulty, I had managed to locate a financer/publisher for the paper. But Ashwin Shah of Jaico was a shrewd businessman. He asked: how many ads would this strange creature called a Sunday paper get? I invited the late Frank Simoes who was with S H Bensons, and Mike Khanna, chief of HTA, to a room in the Yacht Club. I brought the monkey nuts and chips, Ashwin the whisky. Suitably plastered both these gents, especially Frank, assured Ashwin that he was sitting on a pile of ads if he launched the paper under my editorship. That is the story of The Sunday Observer.
One person all Editors in Mumbai were terrified of was Alyque Padamsee
In The Sunday Observer, I made full use of my advertising connections. I invited the late and much lamented Nirmal Goswami of Ulka, the peerless and elegant wordsmith Frank Simoes and the fastidious and erudite Kersy Katrak to contribute regularly. And if memory serves me right, Mohammad Khan and Gerson da Cunha sent a few pieces. My invite to guys in advertising firms did not make me popular with other editors who tended to look down on advertising folks as showbiz dilettantes who “sold soap”. An intellectual snobbery prevailed, one which I studiously ignored. After all, these rare individuals wrote scintillating prose, they had a view of the world. Crucially, their copy was precise, sparkling and written to required length. The Observer was just the starting point. Wherever I went, I carried this advertising baggage with me.
One person all Editors in Mumbai were terrified of was Alyque Padamsee. Besides being the big boss of Lintas, Alyque produced, directed and acted in plays. He was known to get very upset if he got bad reviews. The theatre critic of The Observer, unfortunately, did not take a shine to Alyque’s plays, but as has been my policy, I never interfered with her judgement. My marketing executives used to come to me shivering when one of Alyque’s plays received a bad notice. “We will never get another ad from Lintas,” they would warn.
Good advice, as usual, came from Frank. “Vinod, don’t worry. Alyque cannot give you one ad, neither can he stop one ad.” Proprietors, publishers and editors who think sucking up to advertising honchos pays dividends should remember Frank’s words. Incidentally, Alyque has remained a friend for 25 years.
What did my brief stint in advertising teach me? It taught me writing discipline, it taught me that while great writing is a gift it is also a craft, it taught me to appreciate the music of words, it taught me that brevity is the soul of wit.
And what good did I do for Indian advertising?