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Bollywood Controversy Marketing: Stones, Twitter & Box-office

February 18, 2010 7:19:49 PM IST
Shoma A. Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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While the Shiv Sena rage in Mumbai over MY NAME IS KHAN (MNIK) finally favoured the film's makers, Shahrukh Khan rubbished that it was a calculated publicity gimmick. "I want to enjoy my film everywhere, I want to enjoy it within myself and to sickos who think this is for publicity, I have two words - SHUT UP" tweeted Shahrukh to clear his stand. Our correspondent tracks back to similar controversies raising questions on films that smell strongly of having resorted to marketing strategies stage-managed to look like controversies.

Every passing day, top stars of Bollywood are tearing their hair out to reach out to their target audience - India first and then the world out there. One such strategy they discovered two years ago was blogging. Amitabh Bachchan set the ball rolling. He blogged about everything from game shows to losing his luggage at Toronto airport to his anger against the 26/11 tragedy. Aamir Khan used his blog to take potshots at rival Shahrukh Khan. But this did not have the desired effect, so everyone decided to go back to mainstream ways of promoting their films.

GHAJINI and RAB NE BANA DI JODI are two very good examples that did not try either controversy or strategized product placements by corporate firms to plug the films and yet had neat openings. Blogging is now replaced by tweeting on Twitter or 'facing' on Facebook, two blog-friendly sites Bollywood celebrities love. They can even direct readers to the controversy about their film/role/etc going on centre stage as Shahrukh has done about the controversy over the release of MY NAME IS KHAN.

Khan has always been open about his brazen marketing and promotional strategies. This makes it difficult to link him to a cooked up controversy staged with the connivance of one of the most notorious political parties in Maharashtra. For OM SHANTI OM, his marketing strategy was a precisely planned exercise that offered a model lesson in mainstream marketing - non-stop television promotions, tie-ups with news channels and popular online websites, birthdays celebrated with the media, his six-pack tagline created for the film, cricket matches and the OM SHANTI OM clothesline. The result: in spite of the storyline borrowed from earlier films of Bollywood and Hollywood, in spite of a weak script, crowded by paper-thin characters and average acting, the film went on to become a super duper box office hit.

Pre-release controversies are not new. No one really knows whether these are stage-managed or coincidences or genuine controversies. The media in print, on television news channels and on the Internet, ever hungry to pounce on such controversies, go gaga over these and the actor/producer/distributor/exhibitor laughs all the way to the box office. "Controversies create awareness, but there is no guarantee," says Mahesh Bhatt who plugged a couple of his films to his link-up with Parveen Babi.

On the eve of the release of Vashu Bhagnani's KAL KISSNE DEKHA, director Vivek Sharma went public with his problems with Bhagnani during the making of the film. One story, denied vehemently by both Bhagnani and Sharma is that Bhagnani had slapped Sharma. The more believable one concerned payment. Sharma insisted that Bhagnani had paid him just 30% of the money agreed upon for his earlier film Bhootnath. Bhagnani claims he is innocent. Sharma then said that though he directed KKD, he was not allowed to see the entire film because Bhagnani had re-edited it to focus on his son Jackky who was making his debut. Sharma was about to take Bhagnani to court when the Bhatt brothers intervened, requesting him to opt for an out-of-court settlement. We do not know if this controversy was genuine or not. All we know that it did nothing to boost up the box office stakes of KKD.

Karan Razdan's low brow GIRLFRIEND, released a few years ago, gained at the box office after a tame start. Touted as a film on a lesbian relationship between two young girls, it created protests by political parties and generated a lot of discussion in the media. The film made on a budget of Rs.20 million (approximately), finished it first week with an improved collection of 50% which would never have happened minus the protests and the media hype created not by publicity posters and advertising inserts, but by news stories. "The post-release controversy and the hype generated seem to have helped the first week's performance of GIRLFRIEND remarkably," said a renowned film writer and industry analyst.

Actress Monisha Koirala took filmmaker Shashilal Nair to court. She claimed that he had used a body double in a negative way in EK CHHOTISI LOVE STORY, plagiarized from Kieslowski's A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE. A political party blocked the screening of the film in metro theatres. Trade journals insist that this controversy turned out to be a windfall for the producer who reaped unexpected revenues from its run. But Nair says that the court case lightened his pocket by Rs. 5 million and the controversy actually backfired.

A staged controversy can act like manna from heaven in the hands of a strategic manipulator. If used by the wrong group of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can equally become the most lethal weapon that can kill a film. Non-cooperation from stars, sudden changes in scripts, casting, technical team, etc. rumoured romances and splits, publicity posters - anything and everything is being used as an important ingredient for creating and then solving controversies to ensure the commercial success of a film.

Every producer, actor, financier, distributor, exhibitor and director involved in each of the 1000 films released every year fight the same war - success at the box office which is a rather fickle master. In an ambience dominated by elite multiplex theatres with up market, sophisticated infrastructure, to resort to any strategy, ethical or unethical, direct or subversive, is mandatory to ensure that the audience must feel that this is a not-to-be-missed film in order to win in the cut-throat competition where a film like 3 IDIOTS rules the roost with its very unconventional marketing strategy. This makes it problematic for its successors to race it to the winning post. The media, in such cases, is mere putty in the hands of these manipulators-that-be.

A Bengali television channel moderator turned filmmaker, Aniket Chatterjee, said that the controversy over My Name is Khan (MNIK) will make it to front page headlines in the national press on Saturday morning, the day after its released on Feb 12.

He could not have been more correct. He added that 70+ men and women who followed the controversy on television or in the papers, who hated Hindi films and never went to the theatres, would surely want to watch this film just to find out what the controversy was all about. Shahrukh Khan may still say "SHUT UP" since the MNIK controversy stemmed from his harmless comment on Pakistani players, but film industry has always been controversy's favourite child.

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