January 20, 1998
'Manisha dead' and other Bollywood gimmicks
V S Srinivasan
You know the success rate of a Hindi film? A miserable one in five. And by successful, we mean just
the survivors. It's been a hard time since the collapse of the formula film market, forcing film-makers to
opt for storylines that defied reality, even the imagination. But still the graph stooped low. So the
film-makers, maybe inspired by their counterparts in Hollywood, turned to the marketing men. Save us, they
Serious nudity: A still from Bandit Queen. Click for bigger pic!
The headline in the newspaper said actress Manisha Koirala was dead and that the
killer was on the run.
Many frantic calls hit the newspaper office. It's only an ad, the callers were smugly told. Koirala was
alive and kicking at some suburban set. The mandatory slug at the bottom of the ad had conveniently been
dropped. It was director Mahesh Bhatt's way of pushing his upcoming film Criminal wherein the
heroine is killed half-way through. The trick brought Bhatt and Co some easy publicity.
Producer Mukesh Bhatt found that the trick, though easy on the budget, could hurt too. Flak from the media
followed him long after Criminal vanished from the theatres. And the police kept an eye on him
too. 'Tasteless' and 'unethical' were among the kinder comments made about him. But he defends himself
staunchly, saying: "I don't understand what the fuss is all about. It was just an advertisement."
Bhatt points out that the film industry is highly competitive and it isn't easy to entice an audience to
the theatres. "Marketing a film is very important these days to draw attention. All I did way employ a
gimmick," he says.
Trick for treat: Mahesh Bhatt's offer. Click for bigger pic!
A similar gimmick had been employed sometime earlier when Jackie Shroff was 'arrested'. Annu Kapoor, too,
the report claimed, was beaten up by a gang of beggars.
The April fool promo was for Gardish, which did well but somehow did not suffer the
Criminal backlash, probably because it was only featured in Good Day, an ape of Bombay's
successful tabloid, Mid-Day. But Jackie was shaken, since the producer was playing on the police
probe into the actor's alleged links with gangsters. Shilpa Shirodkar was also 'killed' by Gulshan Kumar,
to push his new film Bewafa Sanam. Again in an ad. It didn't work. Apparently, not many cared.
More recently, in the wake of the Gulshan Kumar murder, there were rumours of Shah Rukh Khan being shot
dead on the sets of Duplicate. It could have been put down to a keyed-up audience, had that film
too not been a Bhatt product. Maybe some people never learn.
Cheap as they were -- both in terms of expense and taste -- these pranks did help their perpetrators get
their movies a better standing than they would have otherwise. Proving that marketing could push a
producer's rupee farther.
Rumour rules: A still from Duplicate. Click for bigger pic!
Less misleading -- other than in the sense that they were leading on the misses -- were the Avvai
Shanmughi -- the Tamil remake of Mrs Doubtfire -- sarees that hit the Tamil Nadu markets.
These could have been put down to the success of the film had they not appeared in the market during the
film's early publicity phase. The film's star, Kamal Hasan, says it won't be long before some Chachi
420 -- the Hindi remake of Avvai Shanmughi -- sarees hit the Hindi market too.
Sooraj Barjatya, who made Hum Aapke Hain Koun, also reaped the benefits of publicising the violet
saree worn by Madhuri Dixit in the film. Barjatya also created an artificial shortage by restricting
access to prints of his film, knowing he was in on a good thing anyway. The demand grew, and distributors
got unreasonably frantic for prints, considering it a privilege if they were finally picked.
That selling saree: Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Click for bigger pic!
So it was Barjatya doing them the favour instead of the other way around. As a result, more money came in
and with less resistance. And, unlike Mukesh Bhatt who has to yet to live down his 'gimmick', Barjatya
gained only goodwill for giving away his own film!
Another director who considers the marketing factor carefully is Shekhar Kapur. Of his own admission, when
he went to meet producer Devi Dutt, he saw photographic evidence all around that this was a family man he
was dealing with. So he immediately scrapped the script he had in mind and told him another story. The
producer capitulated almost immediately. The result was Masoom, which, to Kapur's credit, was a
Hero on CRT: Prabhu Deva in Kadalan. Click for bigger pic!
Next, Kapur cocked a snook at the audience with Mr India, which mixed H G Wells, hammed-up Hindi
film villainy, Brahmachari, kitsch, with jingoism thrown in to prove the man's sauce. But again,
it was a well-made film, and a huge success.
Third time around, he played on controversy to sell his film Bandit Queen. Since it was a
'serious' film, he had the literati right behind him when he depicted frontal nudity -- as always because
the film demanded it. "Without controversies Kapursaab never makes a film now," says one of his
"Marketing has become an integral part of the film industry," confirms Manohar Mutkote, formerly a
distribution manager with Rajshri Productions. Mere hoardings and giant cut-outs won't suffice.
Glamour pitch: A still from Rangeela. Click for bigger pic!
Without such marketing, it isn't possible to sell a film properly, says Mutkote. And the pressure has
grown, with the easier availability of films from Hollywood and other Indian languages and the insistent
presence of television, free, with channels for every shade of interest at one's service around the clock.
Maybe Vidhu Vinod Chopra got a little cute, erecting a miniature set before a theatre to mark the release
of his 1942, A Love Story, but so did J P Dutta, perching a replica of a tank atop the marquee of
Bombay's Metro theatre for his Border.
Sometimes the gimmicks can get really hilarious. Like when the director of a Kannada tear-jerker offered
all the women in the audience free handkerchiefs to see them through the movie. Not so funny was the
attempt by a producer to cash in on a spate of kidnappings at that time. He invited all parents of missing
children to the theatres since, in the film, the child protagonist is safely returned. The enraged and
distraught parents nearly destroyed the theatre. The film was finally banned!
Movies have long been marketed at rural centres by vans announcing the attractions on screen. Till
recently, Marathi superstar Dada Kondke often used a boonga to publicise his risque films. In the
south, banners hung from elephants have sometimes been used.
Accused: Jackie Shroff Gardish. Click for bigger pic!
Television, that old enemy, has also been made an ally by film-makers who get songs from forthcoming
telecast. Some manipulation of listings of popular programmes too have been hinted at.
Prabhu Deva is among the first actors television made famous. Time and again his numbers in Kadalan
aka Humse Hai Muqabla were flashed on the small screen. And, despite being an indifferent
actor, dark, thinly bearded, and not very attractive, the ex-choreographer was a mega-star.
In fact, television is such an effective way of selling a film that even though most channels acquire song
sequences illegally, the film industry takes no action against them, argues Mutkote. Why kill free
publicity seems to be the argument. Yash Chopra is a exception. Not only does he not allow channels to
screen his songs, but he even refuses them clippings. Which is why some angry bigwigs in the television
industry are just waiting for his next flop...
Seeing demand in the making, three years ago producer K Rajagopalan formed the Tamil Film Producers
Council, with the sole aim of marketing films on television channels. But producers of films in other
languages are still cautious.
Saree windfalls: A still from Chachi 420. Click for bigger pic!
"Sixty per cent of our programmes are film-based, but the Kannada film industry is yet to wake up to the
potential of television," says Srinath, who heads Udaya TV in Karnataka. Resistance is slowly eroding,
though. Marketing rules again.
Lala Damani, who pushed his film Saazish by getting former screen vamps Helen and Aruna Irani to
dance together, is shoring up his bets with spots on Doordarshan and FM radio. "Their reach is far wider
that newspapers or cable television."
Of course, everyone agrees that the best way to sell a film is to make a good one.
No matter what gimmicks a producer does employ, the film will fail if it is bad," says actress Urmila
Matondkar, whose Rangeela and Daud both played up the scantiness of her clothing.
Rangeela did well and Daud was a flop.
Proof, perhaps, that the better film won. Or maybe the audience had already seen all they wanted to.