Two movies released this Friday. Kabali starring Rajinikanth and Madaari starring Irrfan. But, if you tuned into news channels or ventured on to Twitter, you would imagine Indians were dancing to the command of 'Madaari' Rajinikanth, while the reel Madaari received a comparatively lukewarm response.
Like most of Rajinikanth's movies, Kabali saw hype to the power of X. Except that this one was even more unprecedented, something that defied logic.
Here was Rajinikanth playing his age for the first time, with a greying look (his contemporary Amitabh Bachchan must be wondering: 'Main karoon to saala, character supporting hai'); he had delivered two duds before this (Kochadaiiyaan and Lingaa); and the supporting cast lacked star value. What's more, there was no AR Rahman, and in PA Ranjith, a director whose CV showed only two films.
But while other films have the production house's marketing department tie up with news channels to create buzz around the movie, Kabali changed the game. In Bollywood, stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Deepika Padukone, etc go studio-hopping before the release of their films as part of its promotional activities. But here, neither Rajinikanth nor Radhika Apte made any appearance under studio arclights. Rajini, in fact, has been in the US for several weeks now and Radhika ventured nowhere near Chennai ahead of the film's release.
What then drew the Kabali hype?
It started with a slickly edited trailer that broke the Internet, leaving his fans asking for more. Rajinikanth commands an awesome fan following that adores his style, attitude and swag. There was no way the media could ignore the trailer.
The smart tie-up that producer S Thanu did with Air Asia where the airline painted one of its aircraft with Kabali posters created the impression that this movie was really going to soar high. In one stroke, he altered the dynamics of movie promotions. The traditional way of selling merchandise appeared primitive; flying passengers in for a first-day-first-show screening was the new thing. The media fell for the hype, without Thanu even making an attempt to sell it. It was supported by social media accounts of different fan clubs, which whipped up frenzy in the virtual world.
"Everyone wants to be part of the Rajinikanth mania," D Suresh Babu, the producer, said. He added that a lot of the senior-level IT crowd in Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad today are people who grew up on Rajini films in the 90s. That was the golden period of Rajini mania, with the star delivering superhit after superhit, with movies like Annamalai, Muthu, Padayappa, etc.
"Those college going youth are now in fairly senior positions in software firms today. They drive the conversations on social media. It is cool to be a Rajini fan. The trailer got a huge number of hits. That and the social media chatter forced the mainstream media to get on to the Kabali story because it identified potential to get ratings," says Suresh Babu.
Which is exactly how the electronic media works. Tamil channels saw special Kabali programming in the run-up to D-day, helped by the technical crew making an appearance, for limited promotions.
But it was the English news channels that went in for an overkill. And not without reason. Chennai is an important market on the TRP meter, which is why anything and everything from the city is devoured by the English national media machine. And Kabali and Rajinikanth seemed like a pot of gold.
Several channels ran 'Kabali Fever' shows for the last four weeks, with the film's trailer on loop masquerading as original content. Most of the shows only fed on the viewers' love for Rajini film footage to get in TRPs. So you had news anchors who did not even know the last five films in which Rajinikanth acted, holding forth on Rajini mania. You had self-appointed Rajini experts who spoke of how whatever the actor touched, turned into a superhit. 'Baba black sheep, have you any Google?!'
Even on Friday, the instructions to television reporters on the ground in south India were to broadcast "happy coverage", and nothing negative was to be said about the movie. The intention was to build a fake narrative with fake enthusiasm, not report opinion that the movie disappointed, from those who had seen the first day first shows.
However, this media overhype has put enormous pressure on seasoned hands in the industry. Most believe that the Telugu dubbed version should not have been sold for more than Rs 18 crore, but it eventually went for Rs 30 crore. Now, with word of mouth not very positive, distributors are tense about the fate of the Telugu Kabali.
This is in sharp contrast to what otherwise happens with movie promotions. In case of small-budget movies, the producer is at the mercy of the media. Studios invite and cajole mediapersons to see their product in the hope that if they like it, a positive story, or at least a tweet or Facebook post, would help in word of mouth publicity online.
Otherwise, the norm is to pay the owners of entertainment websites for a positive review. A three-star rating for a film, a senior producer says, can cost him between Rs 50000 and Rs 2 lakh. If the movie is bad, producers even pay influential websites not to review the movie.
Meanwhile, social media continues to urge people to go and watch Kabali, in rather ingenious ways. A joke that plays on the Rajini craze is doing the rounds: "A friend of mine bought tickets for the show of Kabali @PVR on 23 July, forgetting that he is getting married the same night. He bought it much before the engagement, so he wants to know if someone is interested in getting married."
As Rajinikanth says in his superhit Padayappa: "Yen vazhi, thani vazhi (My way is completely different)"