The Grinch Who Stole the Gossip

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There is merriment and mischief enough, but media parties are a lot less scandalous now

It is 2001. Dressed in an LBD (little black dress) and clutching her snazzy new mobile phone, a pretty young woman walks into a by-invitation-only media party. She sniffs around for a photo-op. Whenever someone of significance walks into the foyer of the five-star hotel venue, she walks up, smiles first at him and then obligingly at the cameras. Her goal is to get at least one picture with a famous face published in the papers. That single photograph would be her stamp of arrival on the social scene.

Eleven years on, the LBD hasn’t entirely gone away. But media parties have changed. They have more of the corporate crowd, more erudite celebrities, more class and less riff-raff. The conversations too have changed. The emphasis is on schmoozing and networking. This was done earlier too, but not to the exclusion of all else. Business is competitive and times are tough. Every client and every contact matters. Your own reputation matters. Scandalous stuff does take place, but in more discreet fashion. This is the era of Facebook and Twitter. Your misdemeanours could be on social media before you’ve unzipped. It’s a more wary party world today, not just suave.

In the old days, media parties were openly wild. At the first anniversary party of the city supplement of a newspaper group which had set up a Kolkata edition, a TV newscaster known for her age-defying figure was slurring her effusive thanks to the hosts when she fell into a pool of water. In her alcohol-induced daze, she had apparently not noticed the water bodies all over the premises. That she was wearing a silk sari did not help matters. There was talk for days whether it had been a last- ditch effort at publicity. Everyone knew that she was going through the initial stages of a divorce. Her husband was also present at the party, as was his girlfriend.

At another party thrown by a media mogul in New Delhi some years ago, not only were spirits running freely—both liquid and dry—there was also a wicked sub-plot being played out. This was the ‘key’ party: where spouses would use their car keys as tokens for a random pick-of-lots to determine whose partner would drive off with which ‘friend’ for a few hours of mutual pleasure. Such key exchanges continue even today, though not so much at media parties.

A senior editor, unwilling to be named, remembers a party in the early years of the millennium. “It was arranged by a big entrepreneur who then had stakes in more than one media group apart from his liquor business,” he says. “We were being served our drinks by Australian girls in miniskirts. Suddenly, around midnight, foam started pouring into the venue from all four sides. We struggled to stand. The result was most people were happy to be helped by the girls, or catch them if they slipped. Only my photographer was worried. His expensive camera would have gotten ruined if it broke or got wet.”

Back then, photographs of pretty girls in red skirts having mock foam-fights with society hotshots would make the party pages of almost all newspapers and magazines. Now, paid content has rendered this impossible—among the reasons that media parties have turned somewhat staid.

A former journalist with the Times of India Group remembers a famous party that Bombay Times held to mark its 10th anniversary. “It was on a Star Cruises ship. Ministers, top film stars, the biggest corporate honchos... think of a name, and he or she was there. We stayed back till most had left, so we were privy to scenes that cannot be retold in their entirety here. A starlet dragged a married star into a cabin and emerged after 45 minutes. A young corporate leader jumped into the pool with his suit and tie to ‘rescue’ a woman pretending to have leg cramps. There was a fight between two well- known entertainment personalities, a fight that has not ended even now.”

Today, the paparazzi has been banished from big parties. Tight security ensures that. And there are legal options available, too, should privacy be breach- ed. For instance, a media boss threatened to sue a global glamour magazine a few years ago after it published intimate photographs of a private holi party he’d organised, pictures of women in bikinis frolicking in the pool with male guests.

At a recent black-tie event to celebrate the success of a magazine, there were a few sulky faces heard complaining that their photos would only appear in one newspaper, not several. And so they decided it wasn’t worth misbehaving. A one-film wonder was overheard telling her male escort, “What is the point of creating a furore here for the sake of one small photo in tomorrow’s paper? It would just result in me not being invited to this group’s parties anymore.”

Chhaya Momaya, one of Mumbai’s popular socialites and party hosts, explains the rationale of partygoers’ changing attitudes towards media parties. “Mainline media and newspaper groups do not cross-promote one another,” she says. “So, the big hype that preceded and succeeded media parties earlier is probably missing today. This is in part due to the paid advertorial policies adopted by many newspapers. Even within the same publication, one may have to buy space to cross-promote a group event. But all this has been a blessing. I would argue that media parties have actually become more mature and better. They are no longer about being attended only by so- called celebrities and sensation-seekers, but by people who matter. Influential people who can hold meaningful conversations are invited to these parties.”

“Earlier,” says advertising professional Piyush Pandey, a regular at major Mumbai parties, “there were many more well-publicised media parties where you met anyone and everyone. Of course, it was all plastic, ‘foo foo’ parties as I call them [for all the air kisses blown]. But life has become more rushed now, and often boring too. Those great parties seem to have reduced, or maybe I’m just growing old. In my younger days, I would love to go to these parties. Of course, back then, many such events had a lot to do with the power game. If you were in that game of power and sex, you could fancy your chances of scoring heavily. There were lots of wannabes and publicity seekers around. Desperate people who were okay about doing anything to grab eyeballs. They lent colour to those parties with their antics—mostly put-on ones. People would walk in with one partner and disappear with another. Former spouses would be seen at the same party and tongues would wag. Of course, I would come back with my eyesight improved just watching these ‘watchable’ people. They used to be fun parties. But the world was younger,” he says with a laugh.

Party regulars agree that the presence of Bollywood stars dictates how a media party fares. “Nowadays, many media parties are hosted as anniversaries of niche publications, so the guest list is niche too,” says a public relations manager working for media companies and filmstars. “The party planners sort out the target audience and send invitations accordingly. Earlier, the guest list would be just about 200 and would include mostly society regulars, people from the film and fashion world, and [there were] a few gatecrashers. Today, hosts know they will get publicity only in their own newspaper or magazine and will at best get paid content slots in other publications of their own group. So they make up by having a huge guest list, often running into over a thousand. This ensures a buzz in the run-up to the event, without having to advertise it. Word-of-mouth and the free use of social media have changed the ways in which media parties create buzz. Live tweets from multiple sources are not uncommon today.”

She adds that the ‘must invite’ list has also undergone a transformation. Instead of just a long list of film personalities, corporate hotshots are invited too. “Hosts know that filmstars give shutterbugs an opportunity, but that’s about it. The real goodwill, the real return-on-investment comes from corporate leaders who use the platform to network, share information and give the hosts/media house a chance to rope them in for a future project. In any case, filmstars come and go in a few minutes and hardly speak. It is the corporate set that keeps the conversation flowing.”

Momaya, however, says it is not just about the size of the guest list but also its quality. “Recently, I addressed contestants of a makeover contest organised by a city supplement, and was impressed by the guests who attended the event. It was by invitation, there was no riff-raff. This has become the essence of most successful media parties,” she says, “Another awards party hosted by a national weekly newsmagazine recently was superbly done with a very high-power guest list. There was no ‘entertainment’ show after the function, since that is not the USP of the magazine. They stuck to what the event was branded as. It makes it easier for attendees too.”

Pandey says that there is an element of restrained entertainment at media parties today. “Earlier, there was less competition among media houses,” he observes, “The spirit of competition among celebrities and influential people was given up over a drink or two. That seems to have changed, sadly. It’s a dog- eat-dog world and people are far more guarded and cautious about what they say, do or who they are seen with at such events, lest they get written about in unflattering terms.”

According to Momaya, the enhanced attendance of corporate India has also led to their losing some of their scandal quotient. “Corporates love to network and use these events as genuine relationship building grounds. They don’t need the kick of gossip. The film and entertainment world is more hush-hush. Filmmakers and stars are worried about discussing plots in public, lest somebody [steals] their ideas.” Apart from photo-ops and some fodder for gossip columns, their presence nowadays offers little.

Of her own parties, Momaya says, “I don’t publicise the events I host because the people who matter are more comfortable without hype. There is a difference between sophisticated gossip columns about media parties, where true events are presented in a readable light, and yellow journalism, where one mutilates the truth.” Motivated journalism, she adds, has turned these parties so cautious.

Recalls a fashion photographer: “At a media party a few years ago, the cricketer son of a famous Indian captain arrived at exactly the same time as the daughter of an industrialist. They were photogra- phed together at the entrance. The next day, there was a buzz around town that her divorce was imminent and he was dubbed a philanderer. That scandal lasted many days. What was the cause? Just that they had arrived at the same time.”

When media parties were a relatively new phenomenon, it was a special event for invitees, many of whom saw a publicity opportunity in them. But that doesn’t work these days. “You may use the media to sensationalise an event today and score brownie points once,” says the public relations professional, “But if you do it too many times, you will be caught out and get blacklisted by the media house.”

Ask Pandey about the good old scandalous party days, and he laughs, “Scandals? I never saw one.” But after a short pause, he adds, “Actually, I have been witness to quite a few. People who disappeared with powerful people. And then became powerful themselves. Obviously, I cannot name any of them, nor are these stories fit for printing. I am no longer such a regular at these parties, but I doubt if one will see such scandals anymore.”

He could say that again.