When the name ‘Aamir Khan’ pops up in a conversation, the immediate image that comes to mind is beatific- a warm smile, Buddha like ears & a pleasant demeanor that strikes awe. I like to call him the ‘thinking Khan’ in most of my writing. He is the nice guy of cinema who will go beyond a pay cheque for a good cause & a good film. Even when reality differs and controversies pop up, little impacts Aamir’s image. As a producer, Aamir has had run ins with two of his directors- Amole Gupte & Anusha Rizvi. Occasionally, a section of the film business is found muttering about his hard bargaining skills. And he prayed at Mecca before the release of ‘PK. Not so nice references to his personal life from the past too no longer make news.
Aamir Khan’s image is the result of a well thought out process- one that capitalizes on his ability to navigate challenging films & take on genuine causes. In play comes the efficient team of Spice PR. It’s Bollywood leading marketing and communication agency, led by Prabhat Choudhary & Shilpa Handa. They have ruled the film space with strategic messaging to their credit over the years (Dhoom 3, Bang Bang, PK, 3 idiots, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara & all Yashraj releases). And their footprint in personal PR of stars is built on thought, trust & careful management over time. Prabhat though is quick to give credit to the cinematic work that two of his biggest stars- Aamir Khan & Deepika Padukone- have achieved so far.
“Aamir’s imaging has been organic. To some extent, the same process has happened with Deepika. I will not take that much credit for that. Both these actors have really delivered on the box office, and in terms of content, they have really outshone many. Everytime you expect Aamir to do a certain kind of film, he does something else! He produced a ‘Taaren Zameen Par’, and then followed it up with ‘Ghajini’. The only consistent aspect has been his propensity to take up challenges that engage him. He enjoys good will on the ground. Everytime you call him an activist, he does something else. Be it with his films or his other work, it is difficult to bracket him.”
Spice PR currently manages the PR of a young crop of stars- Sidharth Malhotra, Shraddha Kapoor, Aditya Roy apoor to name a few. Noting that they fill a space of promising new talent for the future. Prabhat is pleasantly surprised at their awareness levels of image management & public communication at such an early stage. He said, “ It’s the level of maturity that they display which is commendable. A Sidharth Malhotra doesn’t hail from a film background, whereas a Shraddha Kapoor does. Yet, they are both equally aware of what works for them and what would not suit them. That is maturity!”
Simultaneously, they have contributed to positioning Deepika Padukone as a female superstar with acting mettle- a far cry from her prior image of being a pretty non actor who is best known for the man she is currently dating. Now, her social causes & strong opinions make more news than her star boyfriend.
Says Prabhat, “It’s a science. It’s a skill set for sure. Like in architecture, you talk about sustainable architecture. So there should ideally be a concept of sustainable imaging. An image that can’t be sustained is an implant. An implant can’t be sustained for long. When professionals are at work they analyse your personality. A strategy is then devised. One strategy does not fit all. A strategy will only work if it is unique to particular actor. That search for uniqueness is actually the task.”
However, most public relations firms and professionals in the film business show minimal understanding of imaging. Rashly thought out implants tends to drive PR. In this day and age of paid entertainment news in India’s two biggest newspapers, little room is left for reasonable, smart messaging to go through. It’s this very crunch for news space that leads to desperate PR plugs becoming top stories across news websites. Most planted stories are laughable in terms of content and have poor grammar or writing. Not even the lay reader is fooled.
Sample a few. Recently, Vikram Bhatt made the ambitious ‘Creature 3D’ that failed to take off at the box office. Prior to that, a report in the online page of India’s largest newspaper carried a letter from the filmmaker to PM Modi. This letter urges the Prime Minister of India to take time out of his very busy schedule to watch his ‘first Creature film’ generated by computer graphic imagery. And the grounds for appeal are that his grandfather Shri Vijay Bhatt made ‘Ram Rajya’ in 1943, the only film Mahatma Gandhi ever watched! To plant such an incongruous story is to push the envelope on utter rubbish, but that does not deter hyperactive film PR. Sample another one. A tweet by Sonam Kapoor on some ‘Being Human’ merchandise gifted to her by Salman Khan on the sets of their film, also becomes a press release.
When PR takes such a mediocre turn, naturally, keen journalists focus on other sources of getting information about stars. Actors tend to be wary of too much PR as well. Anushka Sharma, whose publicity is managed by the Yashraj talent PR person, Monika Bhattacharya, swears by her subtle approach. Despite having coveted films in her kitty and a relationship with India’s most eligible bachelor, Anushka’s approach to PR is ‘less is more’. False stories about her don’t hit our inboxes. She also rarely comments on many issues. Ranbir Kapoor is the other actor who doesn’t have a publicist to manage his image.
Having said that, public communications are a necessity for a star. This is where celebrity managers come into play. A star’s image can impact their viability in the much sought after endorsements space. So celebrity management firms also manage their publicity through key messaging and selective outreach. For instance, Matrix Entertainment manages Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif & Kareena Kapoor to name a few. Despite major legal issues, Salman’s benevolent ‘Bhai’ image has grown over the years. ‘Being Human’ is a well managed brand that stems from the mega ‘brand Salman’. Despite having 1 film in her kitty, Kareena Kapoor Khan endorses the most brands amongst female stars. The mass connect that both Salman & Kareena enjoy go beyond a good or bad year at the theaters.
Reshma Shetty, the head honcho at Matrix, prefers not to speak about her work. Her team of ace business managers too is reluctant. Yet, when you note the relationship of trust and reliability that Kareena has developed with her manager, Poonam Damania, you get a sense on how crucial their contribution is to a star’s image and brand. Kareena doesn’t create news but gossip often chases her. To an extent, it becomes her manager’s job to ensure that gossip does not interfere with her image.
And when digital communications build a direct connects between a star and fan bases, imaging also becomes a personally driven business, albeit with the help of social media agencies sometimes. Tanujaa Mehra of Exceed Entertainment points out the game changing impact of digital communications.
“Ultimately, the relationship between a fan and an artist is very personal and in today’s digital age, the communication is one-on-one. Personal affairs are some thing that have to be tackled adeptly, since, every artist like any normal human being has a choice to either be open about it to be secretive about it.”
Having managed Hrithik Roshan and Bipasha Basu for a long time, Tanujaa and the team at Exceed Entertainment are adept at building a reclusive, unreachable, slightly exclusive image for their stars. She elaborates on their method of operation. “Image management, Public Relations, brand Management, financial management et al – each department has been segregated and clearly defined. The kernel is the manager who manages the day-to-day affairs…all information is collated, culled and provided for the artists’ discretion. All the departments have to work cohesively to ensure ‘value’ of an artist increases with every association be it a film or brand etc. “
Hrithik Roshan has successfully utilized his positive communication skills on social media, and his recent divorce hasn’t dented his popularity. Bipasha Basu, too, has managed to remain consistent with films and endorsements- converting her image as a fitness diva to profits. That working on imaging in a subtle manner works is evident in Shahid Kapoor’s recent popularity on social media. He replaced his PR agency and his Casanova image is gradually getting supplemented with that of a talented, performing star.
Last word on imaging is of course, SRK. The superstar’s films don’t always speak for newness. But his larger than life image continues to grow. Natural eloquence has always been his strong suit. With smart stunts like a lifesize 3D print model, he remains on top of his game on forever popular.
With digital media taking over, and camera phones clicking every moment of a star’s life, imaging becomes all the more crucial. It has to be thought through, and painstakingly, maintained in personal behavior and slick positioning. In this context, short term PR implants must make way for a strategic approach to image management. Either you do a lot of PR, or you don’t do any. The approach must be consistent. Convenient outreach for the sake of a film or a product has it’s limits with the audience.
But an image must reflect the true persona of a star at all times. Otherwise, there’s only so much that paid news can do to create mirages of larger than life stardom.
What are your thoughts on this?