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The Royal Navy Film Featuring A Sikh Officer Tells a Universal Story
Engine Creative’s latest Royal Navy ad is a fine example of how not to depict identity as a problem to be solved
28 September 2021
Brilliant storytelling is seldom magic, but a deliberate blend of craft, creativity and authenticity. And when it happens to be a universal story that represents a new audience - once, an unseen audience - it has the power to connect like never before. All of which is true of the latest Royal Navy campaign featuring a serving Sikh naval officer in the Submarine service, Lt Raj.
Created by Engine Creative, the spot shows Raj's journey growing up as a turban-wearing young boy in West London. It starts in the school playground and progresses to Raj standing proudly as a naval officer beside his previously disapproving dad.
“This is not a story of this young Sikh man finding his identity in the Royal Navy, but that he lost it [identity] growing up,” says Engine creative copywriter Chris Da Roza, explaining the universality of the narrative and the thinking around the campaign.
"That feeling of trying to fit in, losing your identity when you're a teenager - no matter where you are or where you're from - it resonates with everyone. And then add on to it the complicated nature of identity in Britain, when you're straddling between cultures, it felt like a powerful idea."
The campaign is the latest ad in the 'Made in the Royal Navy' recruitment series, which launched in 2014 and tells the stories of different recruits and how they've been shaped by joining the Navy.
The new spot was created as an entrant for Channel 4's annual Diversity in Advertising competition last year. The contest’s 2020 theme was authentic representation of Black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) cultures, after research from the broadcaster found that more than half of BAME people in the UK said current TV advertising did not represent them well and 10 per cent saw no representation at all. The Royal Navy campaign was named the runner-up, winning £250,000 of free airtime.
For Billy Faithfull, the agency's chief creative officer, who talks about spending time with the recruits and their families at Royal Navy training centre HMS Raleigh, to be able to tell these stories, the latest campaign "is not about what Royal Navy has to offer like the training, the travel, the experiences, the friendships -where they all have nicknames like Chalky and Mouse for each other- but about the person you become through these experiences."
The film shows Lt. Raj tying his turban before a parade and reflecting on his childhood. It tells the story of him growing up between two cultures, where he's just not Sikh enough for his family and perhaps too Sikh for the bullies in the playground.
Getting The Representation Right
So how did the agency discover Raj and his story? How did they go about finding a story of a Sikh man that explores the complexities of his religion, his ethnicity colliding with his sense of British identity — a group of white creatives no less?
Chris says he was first captivated by the Sikh story, and its culture when his best friend married a Sikh girl, giving him the chance to learn something about the community. "I was fascinated, and Hugo [Isaacs, the art director at the agency] and I started looking into the Sikh culture and asked the Royal Navy if we could get access to a few Sikh recruits. At the time we didn't even know what the story was going to be. A few came forward, and Raj was amongst them. He was just so passionate and articulate. It was when he said to us that that it wasn't that he found his identity in the Royal Navy, but that he lost it growing up that we knew there was a story there.
"When Raj said to us that he wore a turban as a kid, and then stopped wearing it. But wears it with pride on parade with our Navy, we knew we had a visual narrative for the film. And to tell the story about him, his Sikh culture and the complicated nature of identity in Britain - all of that was very powerful."
The overall tone of the film was to create a sense of belonging found in the Royal Navy that can help you discover pride in who you are, adds Billy.
But the task of giving voice to a community in a country where the only cultural references are film-maker Gurinder Chadha's comedy dramas Bend It Like Beckham and Bhaji on the Beach must have been somewhat uneasy.
Chris concedes his nervousness at dealing with a culture that he's not a part of. "My little experience of the religion and the culture of the community was that it feels very open and inclusive. But this was going to be Raj's story and that is what we stuck to. We spoke with him at length, and with his father. We were not adding anything to his story."
It was critical to find a director who could bring this to life, all while making sure that the film was unthinking any preconceived notions of British Sikh identity. Referring to the lack of diversity when it comes to talent behind the camera, both Billy and Chris say finding a first or second generation director from an immigrant background who could relate to this story was far from easy.
The Creative Treatment
The agency brought in Sasha Nathwani from production company Familia to direct the film. Half Gujrati and half Iranian, whose family like Raj's emigrated from East Africa, and who grew up in West London just like Raj, Sasha says he responded to Raj and his story. "All I wanted to do was try and document what Raj experienced, and it's his story, the honesty with which that story has been told is what people are responding to."
A three-minute film that tells the story of Raj's life was first created, and then it was cut down to a 60" ad in order to capture the nuance it needed. Sasha says he took inspiration from the film Moonlight, to tell Raj's story in triptych style: childhood, adolescence, and early adult life.
Images of young Raj watching his dad tying his turban, getting his hair done by his mum, the terraced house with its dark exposed wood and dark fixtures - these are all reflections of many immigrant families and their homes and capture the lives of many Sikh families living in Britain. "I got all these from talking to Raj, but when I was putting it all together it was almost like looking at my own childhood pictures," says Sasha.
But critically, he says, it's not just a film about the duality of British identity but a symbol of of hope.
A film that beautifully addressees the minority audiences individually rather than lumping them into one homogenous ‘other’ group.
A kind of film that Billy says he proudly talks about when asked by a cabbie, what is that you do? "I work in advertising, and I make the Royal Navy ads."
This ad gets me; it gets my husband who was bullied for his long hair and who desperately wanted to fit in and got his hair chopped, not because he was drifting away from his identity but was struggling with where he fit into. This ad gets us - not as a problem that needs solving. If ‘us’ means people who live lives, make choices, and experience love, fear, shame, and joy. This campaign understands us. It sees us.