AdMan / Sikh / SikhPark Creator: Interview with Dalbir Singh

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SikhPark Creator Dalbir SinghDalbir is a veteran ad executive and creator of the funny and popular online comic SikhPark. He has his own ad film company called Kiss Films. Here’s his story.

Q. Tell us a little bit about Dalbir?

I spent most of my time in advertising. In fact I have not known any other profession as I joined advertising at 20 while still at College. We were the first ones to use Mac and I thought all computers were Macs and then found out that actually only a very few number of people were using Macs in India at that time. After joining advertising I moved out of the country and worked mostly overseas. In 8 different countries. Finally I decided to move back to India and start an ad film production company. It’s called Kiss Films and we have shot TV commercials for some of the biggest brands in India. Sony, Samsung, Nokia, HP, Toshiba, KFC, Pond’s, Chevy, Maruti, MRF etc.

I do SikhPark on the side.

Q. How did you choose the path of advertising?

While growing up in Calcutta we were very much into American Comics. Marvel, Harvey, Archie etc. We found the ads in them interesting. Soon me and my younger brother started making our own little comic book while we were till 9-10 years old and filling in pages with ads. Gradually we started following American and Indian ads and as we were getting older we started reading more and more about it. It was not long before we were regular readers of Brand Equity, A&M etc. Funny that now we brothers have been featured in BE, and ET few times.

I got a break when I was 20 with JWT, the largest ad agency in India. It was my childhood comics that worked as my portfolio.

Singh Street Style

Singh Street Style

Q. Your brothers are also in advertising, does it run in the family?

I have 2 brothers. For some strange reason we all ended up in AD agencies. Me and my younger brother as Art Directors and the older one Satbir as a Copywriter. He is now the National Creative Director at Havas Worldwide. The younger one quit ad business to join film school and has a National Award for the best DoP. He was presented the award by the President of India.

Wonder what went wrong in the family gene pool :)

Q. How did you come up with the idea of SikhPark? Was it just pure entertainment or did you want to fight racism with humour? How do you regularly come up with the ideas?

I met T Sher Singh a prominent Sikh-Canadian who was starting a web site called SikhChic.com to promote art and culture of the Sikhs in the diaspora. They were looking for a comic for their humor section. That’s when I came up with SikhPark. Since the site was for Sikhs of the diaspora I wanted to deal with topics that they could associate most with. One of the most biting subject was/is hate crimes against Sikhs post 9/11. Lot of the initial comic strips is based on mistaken identity, experiences at the Immigration (i have plenty) etc. Of late the ideas are more univeral, punjabi centric but relate-able to most Indians.

4 botal vodka

4 botal vodka

Q. How do you feel about Santa-Banta jokes?

I have a problem with Sardar ji jokes. I find them unacceptable and racist. It’s one thing to laugh at oneself but showing an entire community as stupid is not funny. Growing up in a Calcutta neighborhood where there were hardly any north Indians let alone SIkhs, we have gone though derogatory sardarji comments almost regularly in schools and playgrounds. I am sure it is much better now, but as kids we did find them unpleasant. Now I make it a point to stop people making Sardarji jokes in my presence.

At Sikh Park we are trying to show the opposite. Sikhs as witty, smart and cool people.

Q. It couldn’t have been a bed of roses. Can you tell us about some setbacks you faced and how you overcame them?

Job wise?

It was not an easy ride. As you see, I have worked across 8 countries in 13 years. Apart from issues faced by lot of  freshly landed Indian abroad there were others.

Like when I was with Y&R in Casablanca a partnership with local Moroccan Businessman and WPP. The guy bankrupted the company and I was the last one to leave waiting to get paid 4 months unpaid salary. All this while while he was splurging on fancy cars and holidays. Eventually when they actually put locks on the door of the company I moved out.

Or the Instance in Hong Kong where my visa was not extended and I had one week to look for a job. I got 2. One in US and the other in Budapest. I was 25.

Tried a dotcom venture in US where for almost a year had to slum it out.

However, it has otherwise been a great journey.

Q. What are some of the funny questions you’ve been asked because of your turban?

I got more questions asked in Calcutta where I grew up. Old bengali aunties would ask us if we wash our hair. Or if we sleep in the turban. If the color of the turban mean anything.

In the west surprisingly not so many questions. There it was usually the length of the hair. And girls were more curious to see it.

Q. What has been your favourite comic so far? Did it come out of personal experience?

ICE Bucket challenge?

ICE Bucket challenge?

That’s a difficult one. The ones I thought was funny when I created them don’t look funny now. Some which I thought were OKish have been a big hit.

Some are loosely based on real life experience but most based on punjabi/sikh insights. For example I have used my iPhone camera to fix my turban which ended up as an idea for the comic.

Q. Tell us about Kiss Films? Why did you choose to leave the mainstream ad world and go out on your own? How has the experience been so far? Tell us about some of your assignments.

I spent almost 17 years in the business. While I had a great time and still miss it, I was tired of hopping countries. India looked like a good option because the ad film industry was booming. It also helped that one of my old friend and colleague with whom I worked in Hungary moved to India and started an Ad Film Company that went on to become one of the biggest prod house in India. It all looked quite appealing.

Initially I thought I would give it 6 months, and if it didn’t work I would move out of the country. We started off really well. In the first six months we had already shot for Maruti, MRF Tyres, Sony Walkman, Make My trip, Inq Mobile and an ad for the Govt. of Gabon.

It’s been good so far. Though it’s becoming increasing competitive. Almost one new ad film production is opening up every day.

We just came back from Manali where we were shooting a big brand at 10,000 sq. ft. The film is set in mountains, and it’s monsoons. There was no where else we could go. We shot though rain and blinding fog. On the way back our crew got stuck for 8-10 hours in the mountains because of landslides. Took us 22 hours by road from Manali to Delhi.

On one Instance we were shooting in Dubai and the models were stuck at the airport for 10 hours because of their Visas. We were to shoot next day. We could have been doomed.

Ofcourse we also have great time. We shot in Budapest with Dir X who is one of the biggest names in Hop Hop Music video. It was 2 weeks of party.

On the way we have created some great TV spots and are rated highly in the Industry.

Q. Any words of wisdoms for our readers? (And our Founding Editor who happens to be a surd)

I would say if you want to do something, go the whole hog. Don’t do a half hearted job. When I started Kiss Films, I was getting lot of opportunities for freelance paying big monies, I never took those. If I was going to depend on income from other sources to stay afloat then there was no point in doing business.

Gursartaj Nijjar

Gursartaj is a mathematician, former investment banker, and wannabe standup comic. He loves technology and looks at his phone more than he looks at the mirror. He is also an avid gamer and spends hours playing Assassin’s Creed. He is a fitness freak and loves to run marathons, and wishes to climb Everest one day. He knows several languages including French and Spanish, and loves to talk in an Italian accent. In his spare time, he is found matching his turban with his tie.

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