Of Movies and Midriffs as Market Signs

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Hindi film advertising is under pressure, and what works has plenty to say about India as a mass market
Ad guru Alyque Padamsee once called advertising the ‘cave paintings’ of the modern age. Recently, he called Open the doosra delivery of cricket: you never know which way it’ll turn. It’s the advertising analogy, though, that struck me as odd. After all, prehistoric art usually depicts the grim reality of survival, while advertising is mostly escapist. And, ironically enough, the ads most likely to achieve archival value a few millennia hence are those vying with each other to draw audiences for films. These ads, of course, are the song-and-dance sequences that are released a few weeks before a movie hits theatre screens.

It was MTV that kicked off the action, Viacom’s ‘music television’ channel to which a generation of urban youngsters lost their video virginity even as sundry elders had their dentures dislodged by the shock. That was back in 1991, and the boobtube gig that dared ask a country sedated by Doordarshan to ‘Enjoy’ (gulp!) didn’t just set the tone for every global brand trying to desify itself, it also managed to globalise Indian music to an extent. As attention spans got crunched and sexuality got groovy, it was clear Hindi cinema would have to adapt.

It did. And how!

Ah, it was heady, and the turn of the millennium saw showbiz advertising get headier still. As FM radio got active, new music TV channels hit Indian airwaves. The Times Group’s Zoom gave song lyrics the honour of an onscreen ticker-tape. And INX Media’s 9XM sneaked up to overthrow MTV as India’s top music channel, a power shift that’s less of a puzzle than how its one-time sister organ NewsX ended up in alleged Ambani control thanks to the devices of an alleged PR professional called Niira Radia.

And the action is far from over yet. In a crazily competitive market, film marketers are now under pelvis-pounding pressure to make waves on TV with music videos interspersed with action/dialogue clips. For one, the Big Bang model of binary cinema profit has taken over: put a film on as many screens as possible, rally a vast viewership over the weekend, and it’s either a bang or a whimper. For another, ad clips for movies now have mass reach via the internet; the country boasts of almost 100 million handheld devices with web access. In other words, it’s a war for eyeballs fast turning radioactive.

If Alyque wasn’t kidding, neither was the late Lever laureate Shunu Sen. Addressing a hall full of MBA students, Sen once asked all those who’d read the latest issue of Harvard Business Review to raise their hands. Quite a few went up. He then asked who’d seen the latest music charts on television (he referred to a show my buddies had nicknamed ‘Phallus Top Ten’). Only a few did. And these, Sen declared, were the marketers who’d go on to crack the market some day. So, what does a snap scan of this week’s chartbusters reveal? By MTV’s countdown, the country’s top pick is a dance number called Tamaache Pe Disco. With handgun gestures serving as a sort of sexual code, it’s busy wooing audiences for Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Bullett Raja, a Saif Ali Khan starrer whose promotional clips appear aimed at an 80s-style mass market; its single shot of dialogue, ‘Jab hum aayenge, garmi thodi badh jayegi, pata toh chal hi jayega’ rings out loud and clear.

Of late, the hottest campaign for a movie, however, has been the guns galore, fifty shades of red and song sizzlers of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela, a carnivalesque take on carnal love in divisive times set in Gujarat that scores big on song-and-dance at several levels of sensuality and subtlety. Not just its title track, its entire publicity package has proven a success.

No less greedy for attention is the stuff on air for Aamir Khan’s Dhoom: 3. The TV campaign for the latest edition of India’s No 1 action franchise has only just begun, and is going all out for eyeballs and eardrums with slick stunts and a title track that refreshes the original lyrics and retains its sex appeal (and refrain).

On the evidence of all the buzz these clips have managed to generate, India’s cave artists seem to be doing a swell job. Of course, one could argue that what lures viewership is something of a no-brainer nowadays, given the country’s recessionary economy.

Across the world, anxiety is considered good for showbiz. In the US, recessions have long been correlated with rising hemlines. Such an analysis sounds sexist, but could this be what’s really up right now? Except, instead of hemlines riding up thighs, it would be cholis and ghagras yawning their fashionable way apart to bare midriffs in ever more daring ways. But then again, sex appeal is only one aspect of the Hindi film formula. There’s other stuff too. And of greater archival value.