June 27, 2010

Bridge that missing link - i.e. show advance previews to press!!

Absence of advance screenings of Bollywood films leave journalists in US with no option but to accept PR material and work on them

Aseem Chhabra

Two weeks ago a group of journalists, gathered at Cisco’s office space in Manhattan for the global press day for Mani Ratnam’s Raavan. Using a new technology Tele-Presence, Cisco connected the film’s director and actors with journalists in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Dubai and New York.

I walked into the small conference room and was blown away with the new technology. I have participated in video conference calls, but this was remarkable. We sat facing three giant screens. Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan were in Mumbai in the middle screen, while Ratnam and Vikram were in Chennai on the left. More important, the technology had erased the distances. It seemed as if the stars and the other journalists were in the same room, right in front of us.

Cisco’s Tele-Presence press conference for Raavan in New York
Maria Giovanna

There was a lot of friendly banter with general questions, such as whether the Bachchans discuss work when they get home or what was it like working with Ratnam? Finally one reporter asked Ratnam “What is Raavan about?” Ratnam’s response was “Haven’t you seen the preview?” Yes, the reporter had seen the preview, but nobody had seen the film, which explained the mostly superficial conversation.

Bollywood production houses do not hold advance screenings of their films and it is somewhat understandable. There is a concern that bloggers and others who moonlight as critics on social media sites may post negative reviews and thereby ruin a film’s chance of finding its audience in its opening weekend.

But that is where the production houses have to work at winning the confidence of journalists. In the US the concept of review embargoes works as film journalists almost always respect the guidelines. In fact, most PR firms insist that reporters have to attend the advance screenings before they can interview the film-makers. It helps the level of reporting, especially the feature articles that focus on film-making.

Lately more and more Bollywood stars and film-makers are travelling to New York to promote their films, but at each situation reporters accept the general public relations material that is fed to them. There is a lot of excitement having a star like Shah Rukh Khan or Hrithik Roshan in our presence, but no reporter is prepared to ask specific questions about how and why certain scenes were written, acted, directed or shot.

There is access to Bollywood personalities in India and also here and yet there is hardly any intelligent conversation. The general discourse on Bollywood cinema is missing. Perhaps the producers and distributors like to keep the mystery about their films, but ultimately the audience loses out.

Last year Nikhil Advani told the press in New York that the soul of Chandni Chowk to China lay in the interactions between Mithun Chakraborty and Akshay Kumar. That evening I attended the film’s premiere – the first screening of CCTC and was surprised as I recounted Advani’s claims. The scenes between Chakraborty and Kumar were flat, lacking any emotional punch. I would have liked to talk further with Advani about the film he claimed was going to be the first crossover hit. But after the screening he was not available to the press.

There are some film personalities who continue talking about their films after the release. Karan Johar does not get tired sending out weekly Twitter updates that MNIK is doing well in various international markets. But that is a rare example. At the Raavan press day, Abhishek was exuberantly chatting with the reporters, but in the aftermath of the film’s debacle at the box office, he disappeared for a few days from Twitter, leaving his father to defend the film.

This week I received a screening invite for director Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live from a New York-based PR firm. Aamir Khan will be in New York in late July to talk to the press. The screening will enable journalists to have an open conversation with Khan about the film, his role as a producer and the reasons why he backed Peepli Live. It should only help the film as well as the audience.