India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi launched a scathing attack on prime minister Narendra Modi in Parliament recently.
Modi’s response to Rahul Gandhi in Parliament the next day was a masterclass in political communication.
1. Side step your threats, don’t name your opponent:
Modi did not name Adani, and he did not name Rahul Gandhi either. A smart politician avoids talking about the political threat to him.
A smart politician also avoids naming his opponent, because why give your opponent the valuable currency of attention? You dignify with attention what you want to promote, and that for a politician is only his own image.
Shah Rukh Khan did something similar recently to promote his film Pathaan. Faced with attacks from India's rightwing, Khan did not respond directly. He certainly did not name those attacking him and his film, and he barely ever addressed the issues they were attacking his film for.
YRF, the production house that made Pathaan, his co-stars and director similarly did not fuel the controversy by responding to it.
2. Shift focus to your strengths
So if you don’t want to dignify your opponent and talk up your threats, what do you talk about? You deflect attention to your strengths, of course.
Modi looked at the Adani controversy and perhaps asked himself: how could this be an electoral threat to me? How could it take away my voters? The answer was economy. L’affaire Adani has the potential to paint an image of the Modi government as not handling the economy well, due to “crony capitalism”.
So Modi spoke on his economic achievements at great length — such length that you may get tired of listening but he din’t tire of speaking. He spoke of railways and airports, of free foodgrains and highways and what not. Of course, it was a selective listing of his strengths, not his weaknesses.
Shah Rukh Khan and YRF’s publicity of Pathaan also deflected attention from the controversy to his strengths — his strength of being a superstar, the favourite male Bollywood star of Indian women, the entertainer, the double treat of having Salman Khan in the movie. The flash mobs, the dancing over Pathaan songs were all useful in deflecting attention from ‘controversy’ to ‘entertainment’.
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3. Don’t let the media set the agenda
In a marked shift from how Bollywood movies are publicised, Shah Rukh Khan and his co-stars did not go on a interview spree. Bollywood pre-launch interviews are more mindless than Bollywood films themselves. ‘So how was it to work with Shah Rukh Khan?’
When they are not mindless, they’re damaging. They shift the agenda. The agenda of a Bollywood movie is from the spectacle of a Bollywood movie that’s to be entertaining enough to order popcorn.
Media interviews of Shah Rukh and his co-stars would have endlessly asked them political questions about those protesting against a film they haven’t even watched yet. Why let the media set the agenda for you? Narendra Modi would agree.
He famously does not do press conferences and when he does give interviews before elections they are usually soft-ball interviews. It’s not that Modi can’t respond to questions — we hear him hit sixers in his speeches all the time.
But when you let the media ask you anything, it is the media that sets the agenda. A smart politician knows the importance of setting their own agenda. This time, Pathaan did the same by avoid interviews, Modi style.
This time SRK avoided not just the ‘interview’ media but even the paparazzi. By making himself inaccessible to a pesky media, SRK also immediately raised his stature, much like Modi, because the stars are not really accessible.
4. Channel your base to pull in the rest
So if you don’t use the media, how do you create buzz for your movie?
With Pathaan, production house YRF copied what Tamil cinema has been doing for years. They used the film star’s “fan clubs”. You could see posters and stickers and social media videos of SRK fan clubs asking you to come and watch the movie with them.
Some fan clubs bought as many as 50,000 tickets. These clubs created that initial buzz about Pathaan, that early sense that this movie is going to be a super hit, this movie deserves a cinema viewing. These SRK fan clubs in towns small and big have existed forever.
But they were pro-actively used as the main marketing channel perhaps for the first time. So if there were goons threatening the age-old tactic of vandalising cinema halls, the fan clubs also assured the cinemas that there were enough people to buy the tickets, queuing up to watch the movie.
There was one social media video of someone saying he had been paid to protest against the movie and then someone came and gave him a free ticket so he went and watched the movie — and loved it!
This is what the fan clubs achieved. In Tamil Nadu, film stars have long been known to take political positions. But they insulate themselves from the backlash to it by cultivating their fan clubs who go out and keep the star’s cult alive in society.
From early on as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has used his base to grow bigger as a politician. When critics wrote Modi off, he used the base to assert his following.
Not only has Pathaan become the highest grossing Bollywood movie ever, Shah Rukh Khan today looks like a much bigger super star than anytime in the last 10 years.
We have forgotten that he had this string of flops. This incredible feat was achieved by using the fan clubs, which were clearly mobilised like a political party. Like Tamil cinema fans, suddenly we have a Bollywood star’s fans dancing in the theatres.
The base pulls in the swing voter. People like me who had no interest in watching a masala Bollywood film were forced to go and watch it for the spectacle of the audience more than the spectacle of the movie.
It is safe to assume that “fan clubs” are now going to be central to the marketing strategy of every Bollywood star’s big budget film.
Bollywood marketing has never felt this similar to political campaigning.