BANGALORE, India — Amir Khan traverses India incognito, leaving fans gasping after the most unusual of encounters. The Bollywood star is creating a titanic buzz around his latest film, "3 Idiots," which has just become Bollywood’s highest grossing movie ever.
Meanwhile, two young actors — Shahid Kapur and Genelia D’Souza — spend all night in a parked car, sipping masala chai from a pavement tea shop to promote the forthcoming "Chance Pe Dance." Even megastar Amitabh Bachchan goes missing for weeks before reappearing as an unrecognizable 13-year-old to promote the recent, modestly-budgeted film "Paa."
Welcome to Bollywood's latest strategy: dreaming up the wackiest, most gimmicky stunts to promote movies.
The marketing sometimes borders on the extreme. Last year, hundreds of people had their heads shaved off based on the look of the protagonist (Khan, again) in the film "Ghajini." To promote her forthcoming film "Raat Gayi, Baat Gayi" (marketed as the story of a one-night stand and its consequences), actor Neha Dhupia recently showered condoms and morning-after pills on college kids at a campus event.
Hollywood moviemakers, whose promotion budgets have on occasion appeared to rival the entire production budget, are of course highly skilled in hyper-marketing their offerings. Now Bollywood is arriving at the same party, having recognized that promotions can be as important as the movie-making process itself. Entire casts, directors, producers and crew are becoming part of lavish, over-the-top movie promotions.
Filmmakers need to promote their movies in as excessive a manner as possible as there are a multitude of entertainment options today, Amitabh Bachchan told GlobalPost via email. “We need to market our films in a manner that provokes people to step out to the movie theater,” he says, adding, “there is a lot more money riding on the films these days."
It is perhaps a sign of changing times in India, where a proliferation of multiplexes, experimental themes, increasing number of releases, professional moviemaking and movie marketing are redefining the business of Bollywood.
And this is very serious business. Since 70 percent of the earnings typically come within the first week of the movie’s release, marketing virtually shapes the film’s destiny, says producer Riteish Sadhwani of Excel Productions.
Just a few years ago, Bollywood movie releases were preceded by leaks of salacious details of the romantic liaisons between the male and female leads. “Today, that is so passe,” says Bollywood publicist Archana Sadanand, CEO of Imagesmiths. “Audiences are smart and have cottoned on to such cheap tricks.”
So filmmakers are innovating. Sadanand led the promotion of "Paa," the movie in which megastar Bachchan plays Auro, a character suffering from progeria, a disease that produces rapid aging. The team maintained top secrecy over Bachchan’s completely uncharacteristic look and role in the film. “We managed to strip Mr. B’s overwhelming persona and make his character Auro the key element,” she said.
Rapid changes in media are also playing a role. The Bollywood-chasing media has grown from a couple of glossy magazines to hundreds of media outlets, including television channels, magazines and websites dedicated to Mumbai’s moviemaking. “Each medium is a potential marketing tool and it would be stupid not to use them all,” says Bachchan.
Producers bankrolling Bollywood projects are jumping in as well. Sidhwani of Excel says promotions have come a long way since the days of his first film 10 years ago, the blockbuster hit "Dil Chahta Hai" (What the heart wants).
Sidhwani admits he did not put any thought to post-production with the pre-multiplex era release of that film. But things are vastly different with his new one, the much-anticipated Karthik Calling Karthik that's due for a late February release.
Sidhwani says marketing has become more important because of the clutter of movies and a more discerning audience. “To draw the globally-aware Bollywood movie watcher into the multiplex with a desire and urgency to watch your film is becoming a task for creative minds,” Sidhwani said. The competition is stiff and movie-goers have a choice between four to six new releases each month, Sidhwani says.
But while smart promotion draws in the first rush of fans and leads to word-of-mouth, even the zaniest, slickest marketing efforts do not guarantee success if a film lacks substance, says Sadanand.
The outsized promos of the mega-budget "Blue," tagged as India’s first underwater film, promised action and adventure. The movie did not deliver, however, and sank without a trace.