Talk of Bollywood and the first thing that comes to your mind is the glitz, the glamour and the swanky lifestyle of Bollywood stars. Why not? We always see them at their fashionable best, stepping out of luxurious cars or inside their picturesque homes, living perfect lives when they aren’t shooting for films or endorsing brands.
For the industry’s top stars - keeping up a squeaky clean public image that’s inspirational and influential is as important as getting the best advice on where to invest their next few crores - because the former has a direct bearing on the latter.
And there’s a huge machinery that works behind-the-scenes 24x7 to build and maintain the public perception and image of an actor.
Yes, this is where Bollywood’s booming PR industry comes in. We caught up with Prabhat Choudhary, founder of Bollywood’s most influential PR firm Spice, to understand the rules of this game. Spice handles some of the biggest names in the industry, like Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and Hrithik Roshan. Prabhat told us about the increasingly influential role that a PR manager commands in a celebrity’s life and also explains and how 2018 redefined them as the #MeToo movement hit Bollywood.
After wrapping up his meetings for the day, Prabhat met me at a popular cafe in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb. Between the invasive sound of traffic and the two women chatting loudly right next to us, Prabhat and I chatted over coffee about Bollywood stars and their rapidly changing dynamics with the PR industry.
“Every individual has two kinds of wealth, one is tangible wealth and the other is intangible wealth. Your bank balance, cars, properties, assets are counted as tangible wealth. But, every human being has intangible wealth also. The entire idea of you which essentially has dignity, integrity that defines you, that is your brand. Celebrities have high net worth of intangible wealth. There is an image of Deepika Padukone, an image of Hrithik Roshan. We are intangible wealth managers of these celebs. They have handed over their intangible wealth to us and we are supposed to grow it on their behalf,” explains Prabhat.
However, this does not mean that an actor’s PR has the last say about what to post on social media, or what statement to give to the press or what steps need to be taken for an image makeover. In Prabhat’s words, they are just “consultants and can only give advice.”
“Our essential job is to tell the celebrities, today what is politically correct or incorrect, what has changed, if they behave in a particular manner what can it be construed as. So we actually jam and then decisions are taken. We don’t take calls, it’s always suggestions, which either gets accepted or rejected.”Prabhat Choudhary, Spice
Prabhat describes the year 2018 as the most difficult one professionally as the #MeToo movement made him realise that as PR managers they are not just marketers, but are also dealing with a celeb’s sexual demeanours now, something they have never done before.
When the #MeToo movement came to India, the Spice PR team found themselves in the middle of it all as films they were handling be it Housefull, Mogul or Super 30, were impacted by the several accusations of sexual harassment and assault made against actors and filmmakers. Sajid Khan (director of Housefull), Subhash Kapoor (director of Mogul) and Vikas Bahl (director of Super 30) were accused of sexual harassment and all three of them stepped down from their roles.
Prabhat explains how they decided to handle a serious movement like #MeToo:
“My suggestion to my clientele always was ‘Do not duck a #MeToo question’ because it’s a very important and pertinent stand, where a certain kind of attitude needs to be shown. Nobody ducked it, in whatever capacity, in whatever authority they were equipped with, everybody responded to those questions.”
“When it happened to our films like Super 30, Housefull, we took the calls. People who were accused had to step down. The bigger discussion was actually when Aamir stepped down as producer of Mogul after director Subhash Kapoor was accused to sexual harassment. One participated in that process and one respected the decision that he took completely.”Prabhat Choudhary, Spice
Moving on from Me Too, we shift to another headline grabbing event of 2018 - Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh’s wedding. Spice handles Deepika Padukone, who is easily among actors with the highest brand value in Bollywood. Deepika Padukone became the first woman to enter top 5 in the Forbes’ richest Indian celebs list last year.
Prabhat uses the word “meticulous” to describe Deepika. “She is a very sharp listener and extremely disciplined. If you have committed a mental mistake or you are being lazy, she will be the first one to find out. Like if you send a simple note to her, she will ask you 'have you gone through it' and if you have not, you can not afford to say yes because she will catch you because she will go through it three times.”
As a brand, Deepika Padukone has taken a lot of risks like talking about mental health and her personal experience, which could have worked against her but she still went ahead with it. She takes her own decisions just like whether to announce the wedding or not.
“The crucial decision was, do we inform in prior or we don’t inform. Then we decided to inform, one month prior to the wedding. It was their call, they didn’t want to be secretive.”Prabhat Choudhary, Spice
And how did Deepika and Ranveer pull off that perfect wedding at Lake Como in Italy, with no pictures or videos getting leaked? “About the pictures not leaking, about people not being able to reach the venue and all that would be luck. We just got lucky. We thought someone would get it but they didn’t. We didn’t do very elaborate things. We took basic precautions. There were local police and security people around, no phones with guests while in the ceremony because it would have become very very difficult to manage. We wanted a little bit of calmness. Primary reason for not having phones was also that people are more participative in the ceremony rather than taking pictures.”
“We all asked the guests also that we are thinking of this are you supportive of this idea. Everyone said, ‘yeah let’s not have phones, let’s be free’. Everyone found phones to be obtrusive. That was the call and we just got lucky with paparazzi.”Prabhat Choudhary, Spice
As a PR company, you have to manage actors with different and at times disparate images. So, how does the PR team cultivate and maintain the brand of a “mainstream” actor like Sara Ali Khan and a more “art house” actor like Radhika Apte, who are poles apart in the perception space. Prabhat says that they never actually try to completely change a person’s personality. “You can’t sell a lie,” says Prabhat, telling me how they only help the individual achieve the best version of themselves.
“With Sara, when you meet her, there is an instant take away, so advice that one would give is that, do more and more interviews in person. Meet people because you are that kind of a person. There is something about you, there is an energy, there is an aura, people are loving you, not everyone is as articulate. You never take away the rough edges, you do not create uniformity, you create individuality, you encourage individuality because that’s what they are - strong individuals.”Prabhat Choudhary, Spice
At the same time he explains how Radhika Apte is a completely different person but is as confident as Sara.
“Sara is a very very strong individual and so is Radhika. When you meet Radhika, she is not like Sara but she has a different kind of confidence. She comes across as someone who is real. This is the individuality that you encourage,” Prabhat explains.
Now, with round-the-clock attention on celebrities from the paparazzi, the increasing influence of social media and controversial talk shows every now and then, the demand for an effective PR works almost like an insurance cover.