Behind the stars

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Feb 20, 2010 07:44 PM IST

As the media grows more important, film stars are turning to public relations professionals to create and manage their images. Meet the publicity gurus.

She’s always on the phones (yes, she’s on more than one at a time), handles media queries by the dozen every hour, and probably rattles off ‘Ash is not pregnant’ even in her sleep.

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Meet Archana Sadanand, publicist for film star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and one among the growing breed of professional ‘image managers’ of Bollywood stars.

In a significant departure from the time when film stars were surrounded by paan-chewing secretaries striking secret deals with producers and promising interviews to favoured journos, these new-age image gurus are well informed, tech savvy and equipped to even compete with agents of Hollywood stars.

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“With a client like Ash who’s an international celebrity, I have to deal with media from all over the world. Ignorance won’t do,” says Sadanand, whose firm Imagesmiths also manages actor Imran Khan’s public relations.

“A publicist plays a crucial role, especially today, when the media has assumed huge proportions, both in importance and in the sheer number of channels and publications there are,” says Divya Tejuja, publicist to Freida Pinto, Lara Dutta and Genelia D’souza. So what does a publicist do? The answer lies in a single word: Everything

Press gang
Typically, a star’s image manager is supposed to do everything she or he possibly can to ensure that the client appears to be the most honest, hardworking, down-to-earth and decent person in an industry not really famous for these virtues.

Duties include deciding which channels or publications the star gives interviews to, telling the star what to say in those interviews and ensuring that the media does not ‘misquote’ the star or come up with a negative story.

The last is the biggest challenge. “The tabloid culture of the West has invaded India too. So some newspapers write stories about a film star’s personal life before they investigate the facts. It’s important for us, therefore, to ensure that untrue negative stories about our clients are not published or aired,” says Tejuja, revealing how she demanded stern rejoinders from publications that recently carried untrue stories about how her client Genelia D’souza had secretly married actor Riteish Deshmukh.

Although the media often becomes an easy scapegoat to lay the blame of ‘false reporting’ on, the fact that the publicists’ business thrives on media coverage can also not be ignored. “It may be true that at times journalists pester publicists for juicy gossip about stars, but publicists also hound us about carrying their clients’ quotes and photos, no matter what the story is about,” says Harsha Bhatnagar, an entertainment journalist. For instance, she says, when legendary film director Prakash Mehra died last year, the publicists of some actors circulated condolence quotes by their clients, insisting that they be published.

Firm strategy
The trend of hiring specialised image managers may be just a few years old, but it has spiralled fast enough for big agencies to enter an arena traditionally reserved for individual PR agents.

“It’ll be wrong to call us just publicists, we undertake an integrated spectrum of services for our clients, from conceptualisation of publicity strategy to drawing up a marketing plan, to handling media interactions and travelling with the star for all events,” says Rohini Iyer, whose firm Rain Drop Media manages some of Bollywood’s biggest names including Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta.

One actor who can be trusted to do things in an organised fashion is Aamir Khan. “Working with a star like Aamir ensures that we treat image management as a science. So a well-defined strategy is needed to come up with innovative solutions for promotion,” says Shilpa Handa, whose firm Spice PR handled marketing solutions for Aamir Khan’s blockbusters like Ghajini and 3 Idiots.

The lucrative business that a top star’s publicity offers has also attracted corporates. “We diversified from real estate and telecom clients to managing publicity for Priyanka because being the top Bollywood actress at present, her image management is as important a business as that offered by a corporate firm,” says Natasha Pal, director at Vitcom Consulting that looks after PR and digital media management for actress Priyanka Chopra.

Crisis command
Arranging for positive stories about their clients to appear in the media is something that all star publicists handle as routine. But the real test of their ability lies in handling crisis situations.

With a lot of Bollywood stars suffering from foot-in-mouth disease, the opportunity to do that presents itself fairly often. A publicist, wanting to remain anonymous, reveals, “Recently, actress Asin was invited as the brand ambassador to launch an orange soft drink. At the function, when a journalist asked her the secret of her perfect figure, she unthinkingly replied, ‘I never consume aerated drinks’. The client, who had paid crores to the actress to endorse the drink was furious at the faux pas, and the publicist was left to do damage control by phoning editors, requesting them to ignore the incident.”

Adds Handa: “It is important for us to be alert to any eventuality arising out of something that a client says at a live, televised event. Recently when the Chetan Bhagat-3 Idiots controversy broke out, our client Vidhu Vinod Chopra said ‘shut up’ to a journalist at a press conference. We went to Vinod the next day and told him that no matter how provoked he was, that behaviour was not right and would fetch bad press. He understood and issued a proper apology.”

Sometimes crisis management can extend to a client’s kin. “Actor Ajay Devgn is my client,” says Parag Desai of Universal Communications. “His wife Kajol has a different publicist, but when TV channels picked up news of Kajol’s tweets on the My Name is Khan vs the Shiv Sena issue, Ajay asked me to clarify that Kajol is not on Twitter and it was a fake id. In the middle of the night, I called up TV channels to ask them to take the tickers off air.”

Crisis management becomes vital when a film gets into a religious or ideological controversy. “Look at what My Name is Khan just went through!” says Tejuja. “Hats off to Nilufer Qureshi, the publicist for Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar, for remaining unfazed, despite being hounded by media 24x7 for quotes.”

“Hiding or staying silent in times of controversies doesn’t help,” explains Iyer. “When Singh is Kinng and more recently, Love Aaj Kal got into controversies with Sikh organisations, we ensured that no one gave inflammatory statements. We arranged for a proper screening for those protesting and got the actors to visit the gurudwaras and sort the crisis out.”

But at times, Iyer adds, controversies help the brand. “The size zero buzz around Kareena’s figure ended up in the launch of ‘size zero pizzas’, size zero drinks’,” she says. “It helped build up Kareena’s brand even though she went hoarse saying that nothing like size zero exists.”

Rumour has it
If you’ve always wondered how rumours of an affair between the lead pair in a film start floating just before a movie releases, here’s the answer.

A separate category of publicists – this time for the film, not the individual stars – come out with stories that generate ‘hype’. The stars’ individual publicists admit that such stories are made up for the film’s publicity, but they emphasise strongly that they don’t indulge in this themselves. “Those who cook up stories are not confident about their movie or the star power of their client,” says Handa. “It is a tussle between the film’s publicists and those of the stars themselves.”

“For instance,” says Tejuja, “Sometimes we are told by the film’s publicity team that they are planning to spread rumours of an affair, so please ask your clients to act ‘a bit cosy’ during events, and make vague statements like ‘We are good friends. Kuchh toh hai, but not sure if it is anything more as yet’. We then tell them very clearly that our clients would not play along with such gimmicks.”

The biggest challenge is when the same publicist handles the film as well as the star independently. “The production house then expects you to float chatpata stories but your client wants you to keep his personal life away from the media glare. That’s a catch-22 situation,” says Rajnigandha Shekhawat, who started handling PR for actor Shahid Kapur after he reportedly got fed up of link-ups with every heroine he worked with.

Two lives
Many people envy their proximity to filmstars, but publicists lead a hard life – if they even have a life. “You have to be always available, because a crisis if not managed instantly will spiral out of control,” says Gitika Taraporewala who manages publicity for actress Kangna Ranaut.

“If anyone comes to me asking to be a publicist for a star, I ask them if they have the capacity to turn into a robot. If they are prepared to travel with the star at the drop of a hat and can eat-drink-sleep only movies, they’re on. They can’t have a life of their own,” laughs Iyer.

You may hate them or love them for trying to make sure their client looks like God’s biggest gift to mankind, but you can’t ignore these stars behind the stars. “Although I have a great secretary and a separate team of people to look after my endorsements, I can’t imagine life without Natasha and the Vitcom team,” says actress Priyanka Chopra. “For instance, I’m speaking to you at 3 am while travelling in an open-top bus on a wild stretch in Las Vegas. This wouldn’t have been possible if my publicist had not arranged for the interaction. Need I say more?”

Digital publicist: The World Wide Web
For net savvy stars, blogs and Twitter are the new publicists. Amitabh Bachchan, whose blog is the most widely read film star blog in India, posts his comments on virtually everything daily.

Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Mallika Sherawat tweet regularly for their lakhs of followers. The media depends heavily on Twitter and blogs for quotes from the stars on any ongoing controversy.

Tricky turf
Publicists find themselves in a tricky situation when a real life actor couple they represent breaks up. Couples such as Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur, Kangna Ranaut and Adhyayan Suman, and Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone shared a common publicist when they broke up. Some changed the publicist, some continued professionally with the same PR agents, despite personal differences.

“As a publicist, I genuinely liked and respected both Kangna and Adhyayan Suman, and understood their perspectives. I liked their maturity in the way they handled the break up, so it wasn’t very hard to stay objective. We put a simple statement of their decision on their websites and that was it. It really stemmed rumours and messy speculation, and made their careers the natural focal point.”
— Gitika Taraporewala, Criesse Communications

Yeh dosti
“Amrita (Rao) is more of a friend than a client. We SMS each other even in the middle of the night, go shopping together and watch movies. We recently went to Goa together, hung out, shopped and partied.
– Jashoda Madhavji, Vaishnavi Corporate Communications

Mallika Sherawat once asked me to forego an all-expenses paid trip to France. She said, ‘When I become a star, I’ll take you to Europe.’ I thought, ‘Who knows about her, I’ll take my free holiday’ and went. When Mallika became a star, she took me to Europe!
– Parull Gossain, former publicist for Mallika Sherawat

(With inputs from Neha Sharma)

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    Sonal Kalra edits the daily Entertainment & Lifestyle supplements, HT City/Cafe; writes the weekly column ‘A Calmer You’

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