In 1913, Stravinsky’s controversial ballet “The Rite of Spring” debuted with such a scandalous depiction of bloodshed on stage that a riot broke out. A flood of negative criticism and bad press followed, but ticket sales did not fall. Overnight, Stravinksy knew that he had cemented his place amongst the most celebrated composers of the 20th century.
There is a long history in entertainment of controversy equaling publicity – the French term “Succès de scandale” has evolved to the more direct “any publicity is good publicity.” From carefully leaked sex tapes to very public cheating scandals, a cynical mind may see generating controversy as a central part of Hollywood’s marketing.
Most brand experts may scoff at the idea of embracing negative publicity – particularly brands with a legacy and reputation to lose – but even Bollywood films and stars have suspiciously been embroiled in controversy right before major releases.
The latest film to be embroiled in controversy is the massive Kamaal Haasan project Vishwaroopam. Made on a budget of 95 crores, the film stars Haasan and would release in Hindi markets as Vishwaroop. Despite being passed by the Censor Board, several Islamic organizations raised concerns about the film’s depiction of their community, pressurizing the Government of Tamil Nadu to put the film’s release on hold. This, however, isn’t the first controversy surrounding the film – it was earlier criticized by members of the Hindu Makkal Katchi who demanded that the title be changed because it was derived from Sanskrit and (hence?) was anti-Tamil.
Clearly these protests – themselves a tool for political parties to brazenly raise support from a non-issue – would be infuriating for Haasan. He has a lot riding on this film and would not want it to be derailed by petty politics or fundamentalist protests.
However, there is a lot he can learn from fellow stars and films – who have successfully capitalized on controversy to raise the profile of their films. If controversies must arise, the theory goes, why not use it.
Billu (née Barber) was in the public spotlight for weeks thanks to a protest by the salon and beauty parlor associations; Aarakshan was protested by pro-Dalit groups; Sikh leaders criticized Saif Ali Khan’s portrayal of a Sikh in Love Aaj Kal. These films certainly faced stumbling blocks, but were able to stay in the spotlight thanks to a willingness to embrace the controversy and drive positive stories around it (à la “Saif, Sikh leaders patch up over ‘Love Aaj Kal’ controversy.”)
So what can Kamal Haasan and Vishwaroopam do?
- Publicly meet the leaders protesting the film – What is the ultimate aim of the protesters? They want publicity for their political parties and to increase their influence in the community. How do you give them that? Meet them in front of lots of cameras, smile, and tell the press about how you have happily reached an understanding.
- Broaden the issue – The real thing Haasan should be justifying is not the film’s content, it is his right to free expression. Moving the dialogue towards artistic freedom would not only widen the focus, it would also increase his support.
- Tap key influencers – Celebrities like Rajnikanth, Siddharth, and even Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have come out in support of the film. Haasan needs to tap his phonebook and get more influential voices on his side. This not only allies fan bases, it also increases the spotlight on the film.
- Soak it up – Kamal, if I can call you that, the media wants to talk to you today. Do that. Tell your side, talk about your film, talk about how much you appreciate the support of your fans. This story will blow over in a few days, so make sure you use this opportunity to convince people to watch your film.
Written by Kunal Pal for Image Management