When a Good Story was Enough

The Story is Now Just One Part

Dev was often introduced as the sequel-in-spirit of Ardh Satya. And much to its credit, Dev did manage to live up to the colossal identity. Alas, as the film’s box office faring reiterated, the success of an Ardh Satya of 1970s would be difficult to emulate today; unless backed by an all-round marketing blitz.

For, films today have become products that need to be furiously marketed. Those that do a better job at the strategy table win.

Nothing illustrates the point more than the comparative box office performances of Dev and Girl Friend, two films that were released simultaneously. Admittedly, the example chosen here is a slightly dated one, but it is not only immensely demonstrative of the subject but also valid for the present day. It was an instance where a blatantly voyeuristic misrepresentation of lesbianism did more at the box-office than a collage of towering performances, a spell-bounding screenplay and masterly direction by one of the giants of Indian cinema.
It is not a case of tears being shed at elite coffee houses over the state of meaningful cinema. For, while Girl Friend would certainly struggle to reach the highbrow art circles, Dev was not too unaffected by distinctly mainstream genes. Why, Dev even had a ‘smooch scene’ (sic) filmed on Fardeen Khan and Kareena Kapoor, the absolute poster kids of the so-called commercial cinema.

It is also no one’s argument that films, however mediocre, on previously taboo subjects like lesbianism should be seen in the broader context of a society’s evolution. But then, whoever said the subject of Girl Friend was lesbianism! The subject was saleable voyeurism. The communication route was lesbianism. And the core target market was the sexually suppressed or inadequately catered Indian male.

How different is the talk from a marketing strategy of an FMCG product? Not much. Makers of films like Girl Friend do, after all, follow Phillip Kotler’s principles of marketing. They know what to make, how to sell it and to whom. In fact, much beyond creating a routine USP (unique selling proposition), the makers of Girl Friend had succeeded in designing a much sought-after UDP (unique delight proposition) for its core market.

Girl Friend is thus a symbol of that new wave in Indian cinema, which is not about content, or often the absence of it, but is about the method of creating, packaging and selling the content.

But why just highlight the makers of Girl Friend; or that of Murder, Hawas, Jism, Khwaaish and Julie for that matter? Marketing is where the world has come to and has decided to stay put. Whether it is the case of M F Hussein’s paintings earning a whopping 100 Crores or Tendulkar earning more from endorsements than from Cricket or Aishwarya hiring Hollywood based agency William Morris for all her cinema and endorsement deals, marketing is what drives the world today. Like it or lick yourself.

Who can forget the enormous lobbying that Aamir Khan had to do to merely get his film seen by the panel members of Academy Awards! Unheard of in the Indian context, the practice is as routine in Hollywood as brushing of teeth in the morning. But his efforts paid and Lagaan got nominated for Oscars. All of that has ensured that Aamir Khan’s next home production would be flush with funds, irrespective of all the variables.

And that is where a sparkling work like Dev had faltered. The promotion of Dev, quite unlike the hard-hitting subject and treatment, was quite tepid. Either the makers were not confident of putting more money in a project that they probably perceived as a risky one or they had thought that big stars and a burning issue would rake in the audience. Unfortunately, as the example of Lagaan illustrates, nothing succeeds like successful marketing. Fierce publicity is a must, even a very notorious one would do.

So what could Dev have done? Well, put very loosely, the people at helm should have treated the film at best as a Picasso painting at an auction house or at worst as a consumer durable or service! Very good marketing can often draw people to bad products (though not necessarily hold them for long), and Dev is stirring cinema; thus providing even greater ammunition to the marketing whiz kids.

The Hum Tum cartoon strip in newspapers prior to the release of the film had proved, yet again, the utility of employing out-of-the-box thinking. Similarly, who would’ve missed the presence of bikes and stars of Dhoom on ESPN and Star Sports? Finishing the Yash Raj Trilogy, Veer-Zaara was incessantly playing Madan Mohan’s name in its publicity. The intent was clear – to give the film an aura of a yesteryears’ classic and draw elders in large numbers. The youth was going to watch Shahrukh, Preity and Rani anyway.

Another successful example of marketing can be Ram Gopal Varma’s art factory. There is not a genre left that the restless filmmaker has not tried to explore. More often than not, his films are niche-market oriented. And yet, RGV the brand and the omnipresent cutting-edge ‘promos’ of an RGV film make sure that most film enthusiasts not only know about his latest release but also are curious about the content. Never mind the often-corrugated quality of his films.
Does the approach of the aforementioned two extremes of Hindi cinema reflect their belonging to the much-reviled commercial cinema? Or does it simply reflect their clarity of approach? The latter, one would argue. Anything that makes someone pay to experience it becomes commercial in nature. Hence cinema, irrespective of its artistic quotient, is commercial. Period.

Anything that makes someone pay to experience it becomes commercial in nature. Hence cinema, irrespective of its artistic quotient, is commercial. Period.

Time is now ripe for Nihalani & Co. to acknowledge the truth of the moment. Continuing to overlook the innovative financial and marketing requirements of their niche films would do more damage to serious cinema, and to their own selves, than what mainstream films can ever inflict upon them.

If thinking about commerce hinders their further artistic evolution, Nihalani & Co. should hire a professional marketing team for promoting their films. A team that would, sans any interference in artistic matters, work towards a ‘successful product launch’ and try and ensure the maximum return on investment (ROI) for the producers. Not the least by making the maximum possible number of people watch the film; firstly, and importantly, at theatres and then through TV channels and home video. That is how it works in West. That is how it works with the successful ones here in India.

All said and chewed, it is time that makers of serious cinema realize that Dev can no longer be aloof from worldly virtues. He needs the lure of a Girl Friend. Or a Boy Friend, if that is what is due next.


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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