An unconventional promotional strategy has made Ship Of Theseus a success story. What are the implications for indie cinema in India? The team of actor-producer Sohum Shah and director Anand Gandhi, along with Kiran Rao and Disney UTV’s Shikha Kapur and Gaurav Verma in conversation with the Box Office India team
BOI: The film screened for many weeks after its release. This is a big deal for an indie film. What kind of feedback have you received?
Kiran Rao (KR): We are all very happy with the outcome. I don’t think any of us doubted that the film would find its audience but the sort of overwhelming response the film has got is really exciting. We were all very nervous because we were trying out something new. It’s the first time a film like this was getting a platform release… a film with its kind of cast… there are a lot of firsts for this film. But we are most happy about the fact that, clearly a film like this has an audience. The film has run for five weeks and is still going strong. That says a lot.
BOI: Anand, would you like to add to that?
Anand Gandhi (AG): For me, it’s been a series of fortunate events. Right from making this film, having met Sohum (Shah), and getting the opportunity to make something like this with his support… Making a film like Ship Of Theseus would not have been possible without all this. And to have found Kiran… her generosity was immense. Now that she is a dear friend, talking about her in front of her is…
AG: (Laughs) Yes, but she has been incredibly generous in the last few months and then UTV coming on board and putting so much effort and so much focus on our small film. They had so many other films of their own; I don’t know how they found the time to focus on our film. Then, eventually, the audience receiving the film the way they did and continuing to receive it with the same amount of warmth. The kind of things that have been said about the film by my peers and some filmmakers whom I admire, and the way the film has grown from six cities to 37 cities. All of that is validating.
BOI: Sohum, you are also the producer of the film. Were you involved primarily as an actor or a producer?
Sohum Shah (SS): As an actor. I auditioned for the role first and then I felt this kind of film required my support. The kind of film it is, the story and the cast… was something I felt might not find the right support. I felt the need to protect the content and come on board as a producer. This is a very important film for cinema and the society, so it is important that these kinds of films receive a platform. And the film could be what it is today only because Kiran came on board. After that, we didn’t have to do much. We made the film with honesty and dedication and only Kiran could have taken it to where it is today. It was a big thing to have UTV support us as well. I like the way the film has been received and we are reading about it even on Twitter.
BOI: Kiran, a film like this, which is largely in English and has an unusual subject, is not your regular Bollywood fare. What were the challenges you anticipated?
KR: It’s not only in English; there are a few other languages in it too. In fact, a large portion of it is in Hindi but it’s not the spoken language. I know what you mean, the narrative, the style aesthetics of the film, how it unfolds, the way this type of story-telling is new for the regular film-going audience. But the feedback we have received is that it’s not unusual. People have not felt alienated after watching it.
In fact, it’s very refreshing to see the reception it received in small towns and other places where we did not expect the film to have many takers. To my mind, there is a huge number of people that wants to watch this type of cinema; cinema that challenges them, that includes them and wants them to engage with the material. It’s just that we don’t have enough opportunities for that. A lot of people who came to watch the film told me they don’t go to cinemas any more and that they went to watch our film only because they were getting to see what they liked to see. So I think the movie made the audience feel invigorated. It’s given them something to look forward to. I feel this film has brought a new audience to the cinemas.
I feel we should therefore not be afraid of such cinema. What I have learnt from UTV is that there is a way to approach this kind of cinema to make it viable. Films like this will definitely get the right kind of audience in, if we approach them in a certain way, in a way that does not have unrealistic expectations.
It’s been a huge learning curve for all of us. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s more about, like you said, putting something new out there and getting the audience to come to the cinemas to watch it. That’s a challenge and we are excited because I think it paid off.
BOI: Shikha, what kind of strategy was used to market the film?
Shikha Kapur (SK): We were very clear from the very beginning that we had a film which had a story, which other films had not attempted at all. So we needed a strategy that was tailor-made for this film. So we asked ourselves… do we go all out like we do for other films or should we take a step back and figure out where we need to reach out? Also, do we need to use all types of media or do we need a strategy that supports word-of-mouth publicity because the first week was always about organic growth and thereby we wanted word-of-mouth to really filter in and support the release henceforth.
This was backed by an extremely important PR strategy which Spice helped us formulate. So from a marketing standpoint, it typically had a PR and an online backbone which was the strongest medium used to push it. And, like you said, the film has had a lot of ‘first times’ so we went ahead and treated the film like an online campaign film.
BOI: So social media and online campaigns for the film was used most extensively.
KR: Yes, everything we did, whether posters or promos, or PR pegs, or the ‘Vote For Your City’ campaign… was launched online. It’s a mix of paid and organic media. We have used social media aggressively. In fact, the film trended for almost four to five days once it released and it was a mad trend for five days and I think that was done intentionally. It didn’t happen by chance. Everything we did was focused on the last two weeks. We also did a press conference, which was just for the online media, because we knew that was the platform we really wanted to target. Once we launched the ‘Vote For Your City’ campaign, it gave us added impetus, where people voted for their city and that’s where we released the film, which again gave an impetus to the distribution strategy.
It’s a mix of everything but this is one film where marketing distribution and PR have synchronised seamlessly. We have not used conventional tools. We have not used TV as a medium. This film had no songs; we’ve got an eclectic mix of actors but not known names. Anand was a first-time director and the concept of the film was unique.
We knew we were doing something different and we needed to hand-pick our media vehicle. The kind of screenings we had, where we went to various cities in the first phase. And we showed the film to the media and important people. So it’s been a mix of all these things.
SK: I think it helps a film to grow. Once the film releases, you get feedback. So post-promotions are done to take the experience forward. There will be an audience that has watched the film but there is still a pocket full of people who haven’t yet sampled the film. It’s about taking the film to the next level.
BOI: Did you ever wonder whether unconventional marketing might backfire?
SK: A film like this doesn’t have tailor-made template. It’s not a typical Bollywood film, where you put out the music and wait for the songs to feature in the top 10. So we were always aware that we were doing something very different but we were also confident. We have thus determined that there is an audience for films like this that relies primarily on the online space. A lot of research went into that.
BOI: Marketing becomes much easier when you have a studio like UTV and Kiran Rao associated with the film. But is distribution tougher because these are films that people prefer to sample online and on DVD?
Gaurav Verma (GV): Kiran and Anand were very confident about the product, so we had to knit a strategy around it. And the cue was for us to use week one as a marketing push since the idea was to send out word-of-mouth publicity. So we took the step where everyone who has seen the film giving their inputs. That’s how we planned to reach out to a massive audience, not just in the big cities but across multiple cities. It was difficult to convince cinemas to screen the film at a particular time. So it’s unfair to say that people do not come to watch films like this in cinemas. We haven’t seen a film like this perform like we have for this one, where week two was better than week one.
BOI: What were the main markets that you targeted?
GV: We wanted to take it everywhere. The question was where to start. So initially we took it to five or six cities and it grew to 37. Even a major Hindi release travels to a maximum 100 to 120 cities. The rest are Tier 4. So the deployment was controlled in terms of cinemas and shows. But we took it to every city possible, whether Chandigarh, where we went to one cinema; Baroda, we went to two; Ahmedabad, where we went to three. We controlled the supply but we took it everywhere.
BOI: Also, the film started growing only in its second and third weeks. As a distributor, what kind of challenges do you face while maintaining shows?
GV: Once the film has been accepted, it is easy for it to survive. In the first week, we had to make exhibitors understand why they needed to buy this film; what time slot it should be assigned. We needed to make them understand why they should allot such a film a certain time slot. You need to be extremely confident because you are exploring this yourself. It was not difficult for us to convince cinema owners in the second week because footfalls had increased by then. Like, first we released in Chennai and later added Kochi.
BOI: Anand, can you comment on the film’s box-office success?
AG: The intention is not to engage people to sell a product. The intention is to engage people in a genuine conversation, to engage the audience in the type of cinema they are not convinced they are ready to watch. I think the box office is a reflection of that dialogue. That was one conversation Shilpa (Handa) and Prabhat (Choudhary) from Spice started and we had to facilitate the adoption of the film. Kiran made the film her own. She made it possible for so many people to watch it. She made sure all her friends from the industry watched the film and spoke about it. She made sure Aamir Khan watched the film; Karan Johar watched the film and talked about it. She convinced Ronnie Screwvala to back the project. She made sure that people she knew watched the film and provided feedback. That’s how the audience started multiplying. So I think one of the intentions was to give people a film they could watch and talk about.
The intention was always honest. It was always to stay on it. The trailer too was extremely honest. It spoke of what the film was all about. Admittedly, there was a time we wondered whether the audience would come to cinemas after seeing a poster like this. But through all that, we remained honest to the film. We let people know again and again that we were not trying to ‘sell’ something to them. We were only inviting them to watch the film. I think that honest invitation worked very well.
AG: Personally, I haven’t received any negative feedback. Largely, all the reviews have been positive and the feedback was also very positive, not just in India but worldwide.
BOI: There were some things mentioned on social media…
AG: (Cuts in) There might have been a tweet or two about people not finding the film life-changing. The intensity of the dialogue around the film was so high, it might have given the impression that lives would change by watching it. That’s why some people may have been disappointed. Besides that, I haven’t come across any negative feedback.
BOI: Shikha, UTV has always had faith in films like this, like producing Udaan. Do you have a special handle on bringing films like this to the public?
SK: I think we all believe in good cinema and it has been a learning process for all of us. I feel this one was an exception because it did not have the kind of marketing mix we had earlier. It has been a great year in terms of ‘we can apply this to other films and they will get a fair chance by the audience’.
BOI: Kiran, will you be keeping an eye out for other interesting indie films like this one?
KR: Not actively, no. It’s not something I am looking to do. This film just happened. I will wait for a happy accident like that to happen again.
BOI: You’re now a crusader for indie films.
KR: (Laughs) I am not actively looking for such films. People think I will be now be a poster for indie films. I am happy because this is the kind of film I like to watch, and if I can change the scenario for an audience like myself, I will surely do that. Sure, I would like to use the access I have in the right way but, really, that’s a long-term goal. But it will help the industry grow its infrastructure even other stakeholders will now start looking for good films.
Films like a, challenge the mainstream because they too have audiences. Like, we should start releasing regional cinema in our multiplexes in a more broad mainstream way. And there is mainstream regional cinema but there is also off-beat regional cinema. Ship Of Theseus too could have been made in a regional language but then, it wouldn’t have got a release like this.
It just so happens that Hindi cinema has access all over the country, which, say, Bengali cinema might not have. I would like to be involved in the long run, not only in the promotions but certainly as a strategy to change the way, change our cinema landscape.
BOI: What about your next directorial outing?
KR: Yes, this is the last interview I am giving for Ship Of Theseus because, after this, I am going back to script writing. I want to give it time and I am going to retreat into my cave now.
BOI: Anand, what’s your next project?
AG: We have a film called Tumbad which is in post-production right now. It is a nefarious, dark fantasy directed by Rahi Barve and produced by me. I have also started writing my next film, which once again features Sohum Shah. I have started developing it. And, as a company, we have six screenplays developing with directors and screenplay writers.