Bollywood formula: Controversy plus buzz equals publicity!

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By Radhika Bhirani

New Delhi, Aug 20 (IANS) Controversy spells free publicity. Or so it seems in Bollywood where millions are spent in promoting films while some movies like "Billu", "My Name Is Khan" and the latest "Aarakshan" become talking points and hit the headlines even before their release.

This may or may not guarantee success but definitely helps in projecting the movie in the public eye.

The controversy could be over the title, the lyrics of a song, a dialogue or the content in general. But the buzz is ensured.

The most recent case is, of course, Prakash Jha's "Aarakshan", themed on the sensitive issue of caste-based quotas in the Indian educational system. It remained in the news consistently before its release Aug 12 for its controversial content.

Some groups feared the movie glorified anti-Dalit comments. They demanded a special screening, refused permission to allow Jha and his cast to stage a promotional event in Lucknow and some even protested against the filmmaker.

Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab banned its release and subsequently lifted it.

Whether because of this or in spite of it, the movie, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone, managed to mint Rs.58.5 crore worldwide in its opening weekend.

Bhavna Mishra, 24, for instance, had not planned to see "Aarakshan" but the hype changed her mind.

"I wasn't keen on watching 'Aarakshan' and neither were my friends due to its heavy dialogues. But there was so much about it in the papers and on the TV all the time, that it ignited interest automatically. We wanted to see the movie just to know what the hype was all about," Mishra told IANS.

Jha's earlier film, "Raajneeti", faced opposition for a twisted version of the Indian national anthem, and also generated political heat for allegedly depicting Congress president Sonia Gandhi in actress Katrina Kaif's character.

The instances are numerous and the reasons varied.

"Billu", starring Irrfan Khan and Lara Dutta, was in trouble over its original title "Billu Barber" as the Hairdressers' Associations of Mumbai objected to the use of the word 'barber' in the title.

Then, Balaji Telefilms' "Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai" faced issues when late underworld don Haji Mastan's children wanted a stay on the release of the film, said to be loosely based on the lives of Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim.

In 2006, Aamir Khan-starrer "Fanaa" faced a ban in Guajarat following his anti-Narmada project statements.

Sometimes, the controversty takes on a more serious edge.

Shah Rukh Khan, who played Rizwan Khan, a patient of Asperger's syndrome in Karan Johar's "My Name Is Khan", was questioned for two hours at New Jersey's Newark airport over his surname and was freed only after Indian diplomats intervened.

The incident, which led to an uproar in many sections, occurred months before the film's release. It touched an angry chord but many speculated whether it was a publicity gimmick.

Johar was furious and told a tabloid: "It's upsetting because I got a text message this morning asking me if it was publicity plug for my movie. (Sarcastically) I mean, if I had that much power over the Homeland Security, why would I allow Shah Rukh to go through something like this?

"My Name Is Khan" found itself in troubled waters again before its release when Shiv Sena activists were up in arms against Shah Rukh for opposing the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from an Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament. There were major protests against the actor, and he received threats of the film being banned in Maharashtra.

The film released, and raked in around Rs.250 million worldwide on its opening day.

Could some of the controversies have been stirred up deliberately?

According to trade analyst Vinod Mirani, "controversies almost never help a film run if it has no merit and sure it gets a film some publicity, but it is not necessarily positive in all cases".

"I think more people have chosen to watch 'Aarakshan' if they had not known that it is based on such a dry subject. That is one example, and the latest being 'Not A Love Story'; the theme it is based on was very controversial till recently, but the audience has not taken to the film. 'Billu' was another case and there are so many more," Mirani told IANS.

But then free publicity never did harm. As some say, any publicity is good publicity.