Aamir, the canny masala marketer

As the reticent Aamir Khan blogs about Lagaan's DVD release and taps audiences for ideas for upcoming productions, marketing of Bollywood fare gets a new twist.


6 July , 2007

It came. We saw. It conquered. It had to. Six years ago, Lagaan had a quieter-than-is-the-norm release in theaters across India. The movie went on to become one of the most successful films in Bollywood history. When more and more fillum producers are realizing the importance being different,
Aamir Khan was perhaps the pioneer already with Lagaan, seamlessly selling a slightly less formulaic film the non-formulaic way.

Lagaan: Clever Marketing or Pure Cinematic Magic?

Both. If Lagaan owes its success to anyone, it will mainly be Aamir Khan. For he gave a new twist to traditional marketing that is employed by most film producers. Lagaan's marketing went beyond the packaging and started even before the movie went into production. The good thing is that the marketing is so clever that it does not compromise on the movie's creativity in any way. For example, in-film advertising in Aamir's movies is not executed in obvious ways unlike, say, in Mahesh Manjrekar's Viruddh where Sanjay Dutt keeps eulogising about Elf at every opportunity with close-up shots. Or Amitabh Bachchan pointing out a Swift in Bunty aur Babli, saying "Woh dekho ORANGE Swift!"

Aamir is Coke's brand ambassador so its only natural to have a Coke insert in his movies. But the way he has played it is extremely unobtrusive and does not detract from the movie's storytelling in any way. In Rang de Basanti, it's only in the second hand of the movie that Aamir is seen with a Coke bottle and that too there is no unnecessary mention of the product or zoom-ins that breaks the rhythm of the movie.

Rather than resort to obvious shortcuts, Aamir has an indepth formula for success, which is, to start with, getting the best team together in terms of screenplay, the cast, the music, and direction. When he picked up Lagaan's script from Ashutosh Gowarikar, he knew he had a winner in his hands.

Add to that the careful cast – veterans from theater, an authentic firangi cast, and a new comer Gracy Singh, whose ‘unglam’ image suited the role of a village girl to a tee. Aamir hired maestro A. R. Rehman to do the film’s music. Earthy, vernacular flavour marked the soundtrack of the movie. The songs were an instant hit, and continued to rock the desi charts for countless weeks. Rehman and Prasoon Joshi are now an integral part of any movie that Aamir makes.

Aamir Khan, as Bhuvan, worked extensively on the character. As Aamir reveals in his blog, he had long discussions with Mickey Contractor on how to potray Bhuvan's innocence without compromising on his strength. Mickeyy suggested he curl his eye lashes to add just the right amount of innocence in his character. Aamir’s Bhuvan became the ubiquitous messiah, modest yet upright about his people’s rights.

Adapting marketing strategies to movies

Aamir is probably the first producer to try what FMCG marketers do with their products before launch: test marketing. It was perhaps for the first time this strategy was seriously adopted in Bollywood for Lagaan. Aamir held select previews of the movie with people from different walks of life. The final edit took into account feedback from several group discussions, and people’s reactions to the movie.

The movie was to be released just after the Gujarat Earthquakes when the Indian economy was in the doldrums. At such time, one could not afford a flop. The movie promotions were kept as low key as possible. This helped the movie not raise expectations of the audience, lest they be disappointed
with the final product. That only makes sense. The lesser the expectations one has, the higher are the chances of one finding something above par. It worked for Lagaan, after all.

Post-release, Aamir capitalised on Lagaan's success with new promotions like releasing comic books and stationery based on Lagaan and its characters.

Lagaan DVDs: The Sequel to the Strategy

Lagaan on DVD has been long overdue. As Aamir claims, the delay was because the contract prohibited him from releasing the DVD in India. The DVDs have been available all over the world, however.

Again, for the first time in India, a DVD release is preceded by measures to test the waters. What better way to get feedback than a blog? Aamir is keen on getting people’s reaction on how the DVD will be received. Though the blog has not been officially announced, through clever seeding, there seems to be good enough traffic to begin with (Despite his terrible grammar and spelling!). Keeping the blog private could ensure manageable and representative pre-product launch results.

Aamir discusses behind the scenes happenings for Lagaan, and responds to people’s comments on the blog. This could help refresh people’s memory of the movie, and also usher in a bit of nostalgia. As we see it, this is what a Rajnikant bullet will achieve, if cut with a half-blade in mid-air – hit two targets, bulls-eye, simultaneously. With one half-bullet, Aamir gets feedback on DVD release, with the other half, he markets the DVDs. But, will the same non-formula work for Lagaan’s DVD sales in India as well? It’s a matter of time, and the evolution of the Indian DVD buyer.

New marketing strategy: Audience feedback for films in production

Aamir is currently producing the Hindi remake of Ghajini. This time around, he is employing the strategy of employing the equivalent of dip stick surveys. In his blog, Aamir asks his readers for casting suggestions and gauges what they feel about the remake and what script changes would they like. Should then ending remain the same or should it be changed? Most of such posts in his blog are flooded with user comments with suggestions.

Other film-makers have blogs too but they have not used it so judiciously. In one stroke, Aamir has involved his audience in the process of making the movie ensuring their loyalty and provided a first look of the movie at zero cost. For the first time, users get to see the making of the movie before it is even made!

The Cola King

Another example of Aamir’s natural bent for marketing (not connected with his role as producer) shows through the Coca Cola campaigns. At a time when Pepsi was winning hands down capturing markets in India, Aamir brought Coke back into Indian homes. Playing various characters, be it the
Mumbaiya small time bhai, the Hyderabadi paan wala, the Haryane da kissan, the UP ka collector sahib, the Nepali sherpa, or the Bengali babu, Aamir’s charm captivated people’s hearts, and Coke regained its declining market shares.

His various roles in the Coke campaign brought a fresh new perspective to Indian advertising. It got more local, preferring to keep it real to the milieu it was selling in. It was no longer a taboo to portray a typical Indian, less idealized, more desi, and certainly more believable. Bt what is interesting is that Aamir's involvement went beyond just acting; he was deeply involved with close associate Prasoon Joshi in the creatives and shaping the campaign.

Bollywood’s Marketing Guru?

Aamir may or may not have read his Philip Kotler, but he sure knows how to work the Indian entertainment market. Khan’s unconventional approach to his career and his productions are proof enough of the business acumen Bollywood needs to convert its plots and sub-sub-plots into money machines.

The days of press conferences and Page 3 parties with the hat ke dropped in every sentence could finally be numbered. Thanks to the precedent set by Lagaan, and the maverick at work – Aamir Khan.



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