"Check your mind, you're free to follow. All the friends that you can borrow. Everbody's so much fun. To pay for all the lunches done. Always trying to beat the rest. You're always trying to be..." - Lyrics from Tinsel Town by Seal
In an interview with a television channel last year during time of SSR’s suicide, Rhea Chakraborty mentioned that Sushant Singh Rajput was troubled with his co-star Sanjana Sanghi and publicist Rohini Iyer. Publicists go to the extent of telling the stars whom they should meet, date and party with.
Rhea Chakraborty mentioned, “Sanjana Sanghi and Rohini Iyer troubled him a lot. Rohini had introduced us but later she stopped talking to us. Sanjana and Rohini, Sushant thought, were part of a big nexus. It was odd that if I am doing a film, a big film, why would you take so much time to clarify the #MeToo allegations? I want this to be investigated. Why will I keep quiet for one-and-a-half months? Wherever she (Sanjana Sanghi) was, be it America or anywhere on Earth, she would have had Google. Every budding actor check news about them. So, did she not know about such a big piece of news?”
When Kawn, a well-known talent management agency of Mumbai came to news for all wrong reasons, it made us think about the power of the agencies. According to reports, Kawn found itself in the middle of the Bollywood drug probe carried out by the Narcotics Control Bureau. Deepika Padukone has been a client of the agency since 2013.
Names like Jayanti (Jaya) Saha, Karishma Prakash and Shruti Modi have cropped up during the probe. Mumbai’s popular celebrity managers, Jaya and Shruti used to manage Sushant and Rhea Chakraborty under their company Kwan. Jaya’s colleague Karishma Prakash is Deepika Padukone’s manager. Deepika has been an exclusive client of Kwan since 2013. The agency got an alleged WhatsApp chat between Karishma and Deepika related to drugs.
The trend of hiring a specialised publicist who can handle the press, the controversies and gossip were always in demand. And it’s an open secret that Bollywood thrives on publicity and anybody who can help the star in doing it even if he/she demands an obnoxious sum of money is a winner.
Dale Bhagwagar who has been the longest surviving Bollywood publicist and has spent around 33 years in the industry since 1997 recollects that when he stepped into this profession, most of the publicists during those days were not very learned.
He reminisces, “I got a lot of new trends in the industry and I kind of tried to stay ahead of my time so that was a big plus point for me. I understood SEO even before search engine optimization came into prominence.”
Every star these days except for a very few have a huge team of publicists and talent management agencies working behind them. It is they who handle their public life and do exactly what it requires to make a star. They are considered to be the brain behind the stars. It’s like how much you can pay to hire a publicist and your career is done in Bollywood.
National award-winning film critic and journalist, Namrata Joshi says, “For a journo like me it’s about gaining access without giving up on certain objectivity and distance. Those need to be kept intact. And I have negotiated around it my own way. It’s not something you can spell out or teach but practice with your personal ethics at the core. It might make you unpopular and make you appear confrontational but I think in the long run both the film professionals and your readers are able to get it. Credibility is not built overnight.”
The relationship between a star and a journalist primarily depended on either party, but with the publicists coming in the scene, it has changed to quite an extent. How professional do you choose to keep it or how personal you decide to make it. How you are able to separate the personal from the professional that depends entirely on the two parties concerned.
PR or entertainment agents have been around always but now it has become more structured with corporates and studios and streaming platforms coming into the scene. What is happening is that journalists are seen by these emerging corporate entities as instruments in building word of mouth for a film/series. “In effect I find film journalism getting reduced to two extremes. On the one end are reviews and opinion pieces. On the other are the interviews doled out just before the release. There is little else in terms of news, investigation and more” adds Joshi.
Joshi questions that particularly at a time when the industry is beset with so many issues and in the eye of a political storm, where is the attempt to pursue cinema as a beat? To dig out the truth behind what is doled out to us consistently. How many film journalists truly have sources? Even gossip is losing value. Along with PRs, the social media platforms have ensured that stars are directly out there for the viewers and fans. They trust this one to one than an interview with a journalist.
Joshi adds, “The stars rarely give interviews other than the mediated ones before the release. And journalists don’t try hard enough. I find totally bland coverage dominating the scene right now, more so in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic when stories apparently “dried up” because films were not getting released and PRs were not giving out interviews or organising events and conferences.”
These agencies play an important role in managing actor’s schedules, which parties they should be attending, who they should make friends with along with their finances and brand association. The trend of hiring a specialised publicist who can handle the press, the controversies and gossip were always in demand. And it’s an open secret that Bollywood thrives on publicity and anybody who can help the star in doing it even if he/she demands an obnoxious sum of money is a winner.
There are many film journalists who survived in the last two years were the ones who were able to write about and pursue from behind the scene rather than becoming spokespersons for the industry. Joshi points out, “I find the cooption disturbing. Like how so many were deployed to stress on the “success” of Sooryavanshi. Was it truly as big a hit as it was made out to be? How many explore that? I think a majority of journalists also don’t stretch their boundaries and just keep doing stuff offered to them. There is so much more to do even if stars are not “available” Trying to stick your neck out for the interesting films round the corner, discovering new voices in filmmaking—very little happening on that count.”
PRs have changed the scenario but that doesn’t absolve journalists of their own responsibility in bringing things to such a pass. Also, this is a leaf out of the West where “press junkets” are a thing. But this PR driven coverage is not the only things one sees in cinema coverage in the West in the manner you see it dominating here.
Group CEO and Co-founder, Vijay Subramaniam, of Collective Artists Network, India’s largest pop culture marketplace says, “The beauty about the agency business is not about who makes the stars. It is about having absolute passion in the talent that you work with. I think the biggest and the first and foremost ingredient of the client is to build relationship of the client living the dream of the star on camera, you as an agent one has to stand right behind him/her. It is about the agent dreaming the dream bigger and harder than them. I think that’s what we at Collective Artists Network has done as a key ingredient of managing our people which is an element of absolute raw passion.”
Subramaniam explains that as an agency making stars one need to have that makes the best infrastructure available to make the talents shine. Publicist should know what is their go to market strategy depending on their vocation and how one should deal with each talent differently. He says, “The marketing strategy changes from an artiste, to an actor, to a comedian and to a musician. We have created an entire infrastructure that interacts to the world of entertainment. Today if my client is a singer and is hoping to make it big, then we have an infrastructure production studio. We manage not just stars. We manage writers, directors and so we do literally everything from financing to script doctoring to putting together entire project. Similarly, if my client is a comic and is doing a lot of branded content, I reach out to brands across all spectrums and discuss how is it that we can deliver to brand plans on their entertainment strategy.”
Dale Bhagwagar who has been the longest surviving Bollywood publicist and has spent around 33 years in the industry since 1997 recollects that when he stepped into this profession, most of the publicists during those days were not very learned. He reminisces, “I got a lot of new trends in the industry and I kind of tried to stay ahead of my time so that was a big plus point for me. I understood SEO even before search engine optimization came into prominence.”
There was a time around 2008 when Bhagwagar’s branding got well established in the media because he was also doubling up as a spokesperson to all his clients in Bollywood. He says, “I was the first to start legal agreements in Bollywood PR. I am the only publicists who are quoted in various publications right from The New York Times to CNN to Sky News in all these international media because I handled public relations for Shilpa Shetty during Big Brother.”
In fact, when Shilpa Shetty went in for Big Brother, she was inside the house and Bhagwagar was the only connect outside. He spoke on behalf of Shetty and held seven press conferences while she was in the Big Brother house. Over a period of time Bhagwagar became so powerful that he got accepted as a spokesperson along with being a publicist to his clients.
Bhagwagar very clearly states that he is the only publicist who charges advanced payment from the clients so that he doesn’t lose out on money. He says, “I always double up as a spokesperson to my client whenever they fall into any controversy. Bollywood celebrities know that I will be able to deal with the media in a politically correct manner whereas they can focus on their acting and the star aura should remain intact. I give them the assurance that they shouldn’t bother about controversies and clarifications.”
In the last few years, Bhagwagar didn’t piggy bag only on big names to get work. He realised that he should stop focusing on big names and start focusing on new names because they are not only more challenging to handle, but they pay the publicists almost four to five times more money than established stars pay. “Big names don’t really pay; they make PRs work on a token amount or a discounted amount. For big names, the publicists don’t really create the brand, they just keep the brand in news and keep them rolling. By doing this, I became the highest charging publicist in Bollywood.”
A publicist understands the fine difference between good publicity and poor publicity and when to underplay their client and when exactly to overplay. And public relations are a highly competitive and aggressive profession. It’s a known fact that film publicists have greater access to studios and film sets and are in direct touch with the stars and studio workers. As Dale mentions, “Journalists want the power of pen and PRs want to control that pen. I prefer online media because that is the future and I am able to exercise more control.”
Nandita Puri says, “Earlier if you have noticed the big stars or the mega stars, they all had their own personal PR people. They were all journalists, especially editors who on the other side were PRs for one big star. Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Shabana Azmi… they all had their favourite journalist who actually were their PR person. These journalists would be present at their houses for all the events and they would personally do their side PR in their own magazine for which ever magazine they were the editors, columnists or writers. Then slowly the scene shifted as film journalists who left journalism and they started celebrity management for three to four stars in their fold. These journalists dropped out of journalism and became full time PRs of these stars.”
Puri explains that now what has happened is star management has gone completely in the hands of the PR companies. Earlier there were these editors who were bump chums of some stars and you know that these journalists will be very favourable to a particular star. When it became a PR agency managing the stars, there is actually very little journalist and star connection today.
The coming of the advertorials and paid news has completely killed the ethics and at of film journalism in India. Puri narrates, “During the early years as film journalist, we used to call through their landline sometimes through their managers and PRs and met them up and had an interaction, but now the PR company does everything and you have to send questions via email. It is approved by them and sadly sometimes these stars also don’t see the questions. It is the PR company which approves and disapproves and put their own releases and vested interests in the writings. And these journalists know that the stars are not replying, it is the PR companies who are replying on their behalf. Very few journalists now directly talk over zoom or over phone call or met them for an interview.”
Gossip, scandals and breakups sell the most in Bollywood news. Bhagwagar admits that publicists are schemers. “They are the manipulators of the first order and I am no exception.” He questions that how many Bollywood journalist go studio hopping? Publicists are the only connection between the media and the stars. This has made PRs more influential and powerful than ever before.
Says publicist Parul Chawla of Picture N Kraft, “It’s we who create the stars. I and my team are constantly in pursuit to grab the most fortuitous chances for each and every client of ours. I have always focused on building each of my clients inside out. It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. The road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same, the difference lies in a simple word called ‘focus’.”
Many times, it is the duty of the publicists to pull out the stars from the mess they are in by giving them the right advice and doubling up as a spokesperson in front of the press. And in the time of paid new and advertorials, it is they who direct the journalist to write and project their clients in a certain way that they wish to.
But some publicists feel that it would be foolish to believe that publicity alone can make a star. Says journalist turn publicist There was a time when stars almost had a halo of sorts around them. Social media has replaced that with accessibility and accountability. Public figures today can’t expect to get away with a ‘no comment’. Their fans and supporters expect them to think. Mahrukh Inayet of Studio Talk PR says, “The person is as important as the persona. So, we advise clients to stay as close to who they really are.”
Publicists believe that for every company it is important to understand the story of the clients and they have to build a relationship and follow certain strategies to convert them into stars. As they work as the middle person between the stars and the media, they need to understand well as to how to project a person in a certain direction to bring out the star in them. Says Inayet “A complete analysis of who they are and where they stand in the ecosystem needs to be done. This intense and in-depth analysis helps us chart the way forward. I believe Studio Talk's success lies in the mantra of being consistent and keeping the client relevant - be it in a lockdown or otherwise.”
From the PR and client relationship point of view, publicists believe that trust is a huge factor that needs to be built. In order to be an effective publicist, a client must trust his/her publicist implicitly for the job given to him/her. A publicist needs to have their ear to the ground and interpret whispers, rumours and protect the client at all times.
Bollywood publicists need to have the caliber to twist and turn situations in a jiffy. Making their clients a brand is their primary job. A successful publicist is one who can be innovative to create a successful star. A dynamic strategy is constantly evolving and customized to each client. In public relations, one size does not fit all.