How You Were Fooled Into Watching Sanju & Veere Di Wedding by Bollywood’s Hype Machine

Pop Culture

How You Were Fooled Into Watching Sanju & Veere Di Wedding by Bollywood’s Hype Machine

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Every once in a while, despite not being a movie person, I become a victim of the Bollywood hype machine and voluntarily tag along to watch films where a 52-year-old SRK is either trying to pass off as a 20-something tourist guide or Salman Khan is half-heartedly trying to convince the world that he can be Batman.

This week, I gave in to the hype and watched Sanju – touted as the greatest performance of one star kid essaying the role of another.

Just as I was entering the theatre, a peculiar sight unfolded in front of me: Countless people queuing up to take selfies with a six-piece cut-out of Ranbir Kapoor in all of Sanjay Dutt’s avatars. Their posing and pouting continued even though they missed the film’s opening scene.

Halfway through the film, two young guys sitting next to me began a guessing game. “Guess who this Zubin guy is?” said one. His friend’s puzzled face was enough cue for him to dispense the answer himself. “Salman Khan!” he revealed, to which his friend responded with a gasp and a loud “hainnnn?!” Then there was the guy who, for some reason, took immense pride in telling his mother that the jail scene where Dutt’s cell was flooded with shit had “actually happened!”

Engrossed in eavesdropping while Dutt’s descent into drug addiction was unfolding on screen, I couldn’t help but wonder why the theatre was housefull. Were people coming to see Sanju because of the film’s mastery over its craft? Or were they only buying tickets because the trailer and the film’s in-your-face promotions had sold Sanju as a three-hour long entertainment outing that promised intricate details of a popular actor’s personal life, ripe with the best spices of Indian entertainment — drugs, sex, crime, trauma, and most of all, parental drama?

I’ll be honest. Sanju is indeed the kind of film that manages to be a real tearjerker, going by the reaction of all the babies and kids who wailed continuously in the theatre that I was in. Especially the five-year-old sitting next to me who kept yelling, “Aur nahi dekhni” until his parents were forced to take him out. Lucky kid. The film basically has the emotional honesty of a compulsive cheater and manages to be equally cringe-inducing and manipulative.

So then, what is it about Sanju that makes it successful cinema? It’s certainly not the loophole-ridden, one-sided plot, half-baked characters, glaring misogyny, or even the terribly misplaced comedic light that Hirani insists on lacing the film with, is it? Neither can the film’s unprecedented success only be credited to Rajkumar Hirani’s loyal mainstream audience base, nor to Ranbir Kapoor’s compelling transformation.

It goes without saying that Sanju is a success because of who it revolves around.

To understand the secret behind Sanju’s record-breaking box-office collections, look no further than the film’s marketing and branding departments. If anything, they are the real architects of the film’s success story. These are the people who have ensured that Sanju is branded as a unique wonder — an anomaly among unremarkable biopics that Bollywood churns out by the dozen. By pegging it as the first biopic made on a living Bollywood actor, the film instantly managed to separate itself, commanding the audience’s interest. Sanju was never supposed to be a film; it was always a promotional endorsement.

Another strategy that the film generously employed to manufacture curiosity was by being tight-lipped about the film’s other characters. Sure, we knew about the big ones: Ranbir Kapoor as Dutt (remember how the first look just “happened” to be leaked?), Paresh Rawal as Sunil Dutt, Manisha Koirala as Nargis, and Dia Mirza as Maanyata Dutt. But there was zero inkling about whether the film would make room for Dutt’s previous wives, his countless girlfriends, or even his friends from Bollywood. And if it did, who would play them? The rumours floating around were relentless: Was Vicky Kaushal playing Kumar Gaurav? Does Karishma Tanna play Madhuri Dixit? And, will Alia Bhatt have a cameo in the film?

For months, the film’s marketing machinery had ensured that all of India was tricked into playing a game of Chinese whispers. So that by the time Sanju released, people would be left with no choice but to watch the film and find out whether their hunches were actually true. Like the boys who believed they were seeing a version of Salman Khan and his entanglement in Dutt’s drug use onscreen, most of us didn’t go for the storytelling. Instead, we went to see it because it spoke right to the voyeur in us.

It goes without saying that Sanju is a success because of who it revolves around. Just the way MF Husain’s paintings became a matter of national outrage because of who he dared to depict on canvas, his skill and technique of decades eventually amounting to nothing. The film is prime proof of our collective fascination with the subject of art than art itself.

Just last month, another film exploited its marketing adroitness to reap box-office benefits: Shashanka Ghosh’s Veere Di Wedding. A dishonest and over-dramatised portrayal of everything that feminism stands for, VDW rode on its successful branding that in conservative India, it would be an exposé on what women really want. Headlined by four female actresses and aided by an aggressive promotional campaign that carefully curated public perception with well-timed song and poster releases, the film ensured that it was the only thing that people talked about.

Sonam Kapoor’s glamorously timed wedding, replete with an explosion of publicity through star-studded photos, boomerangs, videos, and unguarded Instagram coverage (it was almost as if we’d been given a virtual wedding invite) only made things better.

Then there was the customary item-song, “Tareefan” that took the anticipation for the film a step further. In a case of role reversal, it was the men who were treated as objects, while the women were busy smoking, drinking, driving, and buying drinks for the other sex. And all of this was inoculation against actual criticism of the film, which is, objectively speaking, terrible on many counts. It caught so many of us in a bind: How could you critique a film that went so far for the cause of feminism, when so many Bollywood films don’t?

Just like Sanju, VDW’s marketing promised a groundbreaking film and ensured that it reminded the public about it everyday. It’s why they can get away with being middling fare. It’s a terrific demonstration of the industry’s business sense but a crushing dent to the economy of creativity and storytelling.