While I waited for that elusive moment of inspiration for this month’s column, I did what every self-respecting guy with a computer does when there is work to be done and no ideas on how to do it- browse random YouTube videos. And as fate would have it, I serendipitiously stumbled upon one of those ubiquitous press meets to promote a film, where the leads mouth entirely original, non-scripted lines of how they have landed the most challenging roles of their careers and the director proclaims how this movie is as different as different can be and you have to see it to believe it.
Just as I was about to cluck away philosophically that some things never seem to change, yet another itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, leaving you gasping for more teaser of Raavan, which I had already single handedly contributed a thousand views to, caught my eye again. Now, Mani Ratnam’s credentials as an auteur par excellence and one of India’s best directors might not find universal agreement, but, it will be difficult to find someone to contest his superlative ability to market his movies. It is probably his business school background that makes him package his work akin to a shiny, glossy, enticing product that draws your attention instantly. The lusciously shot posters, the promos that show tantalisingly little, the meticulously designed fonts for the movie title and all the hype in the world created merely by hush-hush and secrecy, Ratnam adopts techniques that would be right out of a corporate marketing team manual. In an industry of excesses, his methods of moderation have far greater impact than any of the routine collection of montages that pass off as trailers.
Changing tack for a harder-to-please market
While on one hand the trend of ineffectual press meets continues, with the entry of more corporates into Indian film production, filmmakers are beginning to realise the importance of taking their art to the mart. Leading stars are taking a more active role in canvassing for their movies. Take for instance, the extreme case of Aamir Khan going into hiding as part of the promotions for 3 Idiots. Gone are the times, when mere star power and showing up and flashing smiles for press photographs was good enough to get the crowds in to see your movie. Faced with an increasingly discerning audience, with no dearth of entertainment choices, who are forced into making an informed decision because of that expensive theatre ticket, a movie can no longer just sell itself. It has to be treated like a product that needs to be advertised and marketed aggressively. The lucrative opportunity of catering to foreign diaspora brings a new dimension to movie marketing, as star-studded glitzy previews, same day releases and even music launches, all happening outside India are fast becoming the norm.
Making movies or manufacturing them?
The meaning and value of art is enhanced by its reach and all of these are totally reasonable and perfectly acceptable ways to expand it. However, it is hard to be as understanding when it comes to watching the trailer of the movie Kites and the way it has been promoted. It is one thing to adopt any means to sell a work of unconstrained creativity. It is a totally different thing when that work ceases to be art and becomes a mere commodity. Before that comes across as an arrogant statement made from some kind of aesthetic high ground, let me clarify that I have no issues with this ‘commodification’ of cinema. I just find it difficult to fathom what could possibly be running through the mind of its creator, Anurag Basu. Kites seems in every aspect designed to ride the post-Slumdog Millionaire wave of recognition of the Indian style of making movies. It is marketing, at multiple levels- a portfolio for Hrithik Roshan, displaying his credentials to Hollywood; and a showcase to the western world how entertaining an exotic Indian mix of a racy thriller fused with melodrama, music and dance can be.
Above all this, to me, Kites ceased to be cinema and just a product, when I learnt about the Brett Ratner remixed version, which has been edited to remove portions that were not deemed Western audience friendly. In a country where film makers are already stifled by an obsolete, unreasonable censor board, it is surprising that Basu willingly subjected his work to this mutilation. One might suggest that Ratner’s work is not very much different than that of an editor, but, in my opinion there is a key difference. An editor is primarily driven by what the director is trying to convey and how well he is doing that. Ratner, on the other hand, is merely driven by whom it is being conveyed to. It is not uncommon for artists to play to the gallery, but, they do that on their own terms. In the case of Kites, it seems like Basu is just manufacturing a movie based on a target audience. There is a lot of business sense in this, perhaps, that is all there is to it.