From KBC ads to films – how director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari is capturing the audience with powerful storytelling

Among the talented women directors in Indian cinema today, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has made a name for herself with films like Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly ki Barfi and the recent, Panga. She tells HerStory about her journey from advertising to films.

It’s another busy day in the life of Jaya Nigam. At 7am, she is sipping a cup of tea enjoying a few minutes of me-time before she gets to the grind of household chores. A quick breakfast is interspersed with constant checks on the mobile, reading emails that would need her attention. 

She drops her son off to the bus stop and heads out to work, where many important tasks and meetings wait. It’s going to be another long day. The whole routine is repeated… and life goes on.

The point here is we do not see the women in our lives multi-task at different times of the day that affect our lives in more ways than we can imagine. Whether they are at home, serving you your tea, hot breakfast or booking your cab or heading out to work themselves, her efficiency is often taken for granted.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

This everyday scene is relieved in striking detail in director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s latest Panga and strikes home the fact that while women are indeed indispensable, do they actually get their due?

She explains, “It’s something I have seen growing up. The whole family would finish a meal and then the woman would sit down for hers. It isn’t an imposed role, it just is. It is commonplace in every family. It is what I wanted to portray that element in Panga. That transition from a girlfriend to a wife and a mother is so fast that many don’t realise it. We may be working and 'Swiggying' our food, but there still are many role biases we follow even today. These are just taken for granted, like your mother or wife looking after the house as well, and not all are imposed by the family. It just is there.” 

From Chartered Accountancy to the Arts

The Bollywood director is well-known for her focus on a new genre of filmmaking, story telling, and original screenplays that strike a chord with the common man or woman.

A mother of two, Ashwiny made her directorial debut with Nil Battey Sannata in 2017, for which she won a debut director award. Born in to a middle-class South Indian family in Mulund, a suburb of Mumbai, Ashwiny says her association with films was just happenstance.

A candid moment with actor Kangana Ranaut, during the making of Panga.

“My father worked in the Middle East while my mother and I stayed in Mumbai,” says Ashwiny. A single child, Ashwiny says she also had a mind of her own. 

“I was always inclined to arts and crafts, but coming from a regular middle-class South Indian family, getting into pure arts was unheard of. Also, if there was one thing my mother was very keen about was me doing a CA, so I enrolled into a CA course, but I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me,” says Ashwiny. 

Ashwiny enrolled into an arts college in Mumbai, won a gold medal and went on to join adversing firm Leo Burnett as a trainee art director. She soon climbed up the ladder to become executive director.

“During this time, I met Nitesh (Tiwari), who then was a copywriter at Lowe Lintas, got married and became a mother. Nitesh and I keep joking, the reason we hit off was because he’s a writer and I am an art director,” jokes Ashwiny. 

Behind the scenes of Panga

The first KBC commercial to Nil Battey Sannata 

As the Executive Creative Director at Leo Burnett, Ashwiny has been a part and also won several awards like at the New York Film Festival, Cannes and many others. 

“Storytelling was always something I always loved doing. It was always a part of the brief while we were making ad films,” says Ashwiny. 

By then Ashwiny had done the first every Kaun Banega Crorepati Commercial. The commercial got her accolades and push to the forefront. It was then that she got thinking of storytelling in the filmmaking. 

“The simplicity of that idea seemed to work well, and I felt creating that story for a larger audience would be something I would love doing. My national creative director KV Sridhar had encouraged me to try filmmaking So after much thought I decided to try my hand in filmmaking,” says Ashwiny. 

The Kaun Banega Crorepati ad, of a girl meeting Amitabh Bachchan, saying 'ladki hu hai' had resonated well with the audiences. It was during this very time that Ashwiny had gotten the idea of Nil Battey Sanata. 

When she told Ajay. L Rai an executive producer of JAR pictures of the story, he loved the plot.

“I had taken Nitesh’s help to write the story, and I had told Ajay there is this story that I have do you have a producer in mind? And he insisted that I direct the film. I wasn’t sure and was actually sceptical. But he insisted that he would produce the film if I directed it,” says Ashwiny. 

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

What? Movies? Are you serious? 

Woman or man, filmmaking is a tough business. “But then women just have to work a little more harder to prove themselves. There is this general belief and doubt whether she will be able to do,” says Ashwiny. 

She adds that many wondered why Ashwiny wanted to get into films. A mother by then and being well settled in her profession many even asked - “Why do you need to do this, your husband is earning well. And it is a lot of hard work,” says Ashwiny. 

There were many people who acted as the proverbial - naysayers. Ashwiny says, many who she thought would help and encourage her were in fact reluctant. 

Even during her advertising days, Ashwiny says, "I had my work cut out for me. But even then it was about telling a story." While working on multiple brands, Ashwiny always wanted to get the best out of her brands.

Many of her clients from the advertising days, are still her friends now. A team player, Ashwiny recollects the nights she used has burn the mid night oil to create a mark for herself and her team.

Most of her creative directors are now screenplay writers. She wants to build a creative hub through her prodcution house earthsky pictures where when she grows her whole creative clan grows.

“Many people who I had thought would help me had turned their backs to me. It was a daunting time. But then I knew what I wanted to do. I went to different people till I found someone who believed in the story and the beauty and simplicity of it. I didn’t have anyone who seemed to believe or want to back me,” says Ashwiny. 

The box-office race 

Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly ki Barfi, and now Panga, with each film Ashwiny has tried telling a story. She adds that the audiences today are changing and are looking for an overall different cinematic experience

While Nil Battey Sannata was her first movie as director, and since then she has tried to tell different stories with Bareilly ki Barfi, and recently Panga. But it’s her first that still continues to inspire her.

“The innocent story-telling of Nil Battey Sannata is what I want to retain every time. It is easy to get pulled into the craze of the business and numbers, but when it comes to storytelling, it is important to retain some innocence and beauty. You will never be able to make different cinema and tell a story well if you focus on pandering to the numbers or a crowd,” she says, signing off.

(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)