Perhaps Clubhouse can help Bollywood keep it real, says Anupama Chopra
Vidya Balan swearing. Santosh Sivan conducting an informal masterclass on cinematography. Heated discussions on the Easter eggs in Loki, and on the unsuccessful mash-up of important issue and gangster swagger in Jagame Thandhiram. Clubhouse offers all this. The invitation-only social media app was launched on iOS in March 2020 and quickly found a following in the US. In India, a majority-Android market, it got more buzz than users. But since its May 21 debut on Android, Clubhouse has become the hottest place to be seen, or rather heard.
The company does not divulge figures by country, but Clubhouse head of international Aarthi Ramamurthy says the app has gained more than 8 million new users since the Android version was rolled out, with more than 2 million of those in India.
How, I wonder, will this impact conversation around films and entertainment in the country? Clubhouse offers audio-only, real-time discussions that come with a “no recording without prior permission” clause (which, of course, is already being flouted here). The format has many advantages. You can participate in your pyjamas, you can be listening and continue to multi-task, you can engage and connect with a variety of people, interactions are free-flowing and candid. Since rooms often have more than one moderator, there is a mix of opinions and topics.
The Bollywood Film Club, founded by screenwriter Aniruddha Guha and co-moderated by him and his wife, content creator Janice Sequeira, invited Balan to speak about her latest release, Sherni. The conversation veered into Balan’s fraught relationship with the fashion industry, which, the actor said, never welcomed her. She spoke of how, in her early years, she had a complete hatred for her body because she thought of herself as a “big girl” in the movie business.
While Balan has addressed these issues before, this felt more unscripted and candid. “We want celebrities to go beyond their day job,” Sequeira told me. “We want their opinions on culture and gender representation.”
Can Clubhouse provide an antidote to the PR-managed, airbrushed, advertorial-led content that passes for entertainment journalism across most media platforms today? It’s early days, but the signs are good. Prabhat Choudhary, founder of Spice PR and the digital marketing agency Entropy (which handle stars such as Hrithik Roshan and Aamir Khan) says that they are considering Clubhouse seriously too. “We’re being forced to innovate,” he adds. There are no events, press conferences or in-person interviews. Trailer launches, an especially big deal, are off the cards until the pandemic abates entirely. “We need to communicate and market things more with very few tools so we are being forced to reimagine,” Choudhary says.
Clubhouse might become a major player in this reimagination of movie publicity. There is space here for frank feedback, myriad opinions and a genuine connection between speakers and listeners. At least in my experience, the app hasn’t been tainted yet by trolls and hate speech. Since the moderators in each room have the power to remove participants, people tend to behave.
Ramamurthy says Clubhouse is already working with a variety of creators from the Indian film ecosystem. She says she would love to see more “rooms that explain film and the show business industry”, “rooms related to music” and more “content and diversity” on India’s stand-up comedy scene. Essentially there is, forgive the pun, ample room to play here. I’m excited by the possibilities.