(L to R) Aamir Khan, Gurinder Chadha, Ayushmann Khurrana
There was a time, before the pandemic, when a movie would be promoted by the cast being shepherded from one TV studio to another, in Noida. The anchors hadn’t watched the movie, the actors couldn’t reveal much. Invariably, the conversations would either revolve around controversies or be reduced to inanities. The pandemic replaced the big screen with the small, and in-person interactions with virtual interviews. But the disco round of TV studios seems to have been retired forever. In its place is the Ganga aarti in Varanasi. In an era when you can’t be ritualistic enough, the visit to Varanasi has become a mandatory stop in the promo tour. The man to put Varanasi on the map of film promos? Prabhat Choudhary, founder of Spice, whose idea it was to take Aamir Khan to Varanasi to kick off a seven-city tour for 3 Idiots in 2009. Aamir’s disguise went viral, paving the way for other films to come to the holy city. Heropanti (2014) followed, as did Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), Commando 2 (2017), Loveyatri (2018), Tadap (2021), and the biggest film of the year, RRR, whose stars chose the Ganga aarti to promote their movie. For Samrat Prithviraj , where star Akshay Kumar took a dip in the waters for double measure, the visit to the ghats not only helps score political points but it is also a smart way of virtue signalling. That it’s not enough is obvious. Kangana Ranaut took her entire team to the aarti before the release of Dhaakad, but the movie still sank without a trace. One reason could be that its subject matter—a powerful, feminist assassin with a Mother Teresa complex—did not really espouse family values. Samrat Prithivraj with its talk of dharma is a better candidate, but is unlikely to be the last movie to use the aarti as a promotional tool. As Choudhary has proved, Varanasi also taps into the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh markets and gives a pan-India approach to a film. Varanasi has long been a magnet for people across the country and overseas, so any communication from here travels far and wide. Varanasi not only allows actors to perform the Ganga aarti to seek blessings for the film’s success but also to create a buzz around their releases. I remember Choudhary telling me about this seven years ago: “Varanasi has a deeply embedded appeal in the subconscious of our nation. What happens in Varanasi resonates throughout India. It is one of the pulse points of the country.”
Letting His Work Speak for Him
Some actors wear their politics on their social media profiles. Others prefer to let their work speak, instead. Ayushmann Khurrana is one of the latter. He uses his lighter comedies such as Dream Girl and Bala (both 2019) to enable him to make sharper political commentaries, such as Article 15 (2019) and the recent Anek. He calls these movies engagement rather than entertainment. “As a person, I’m very non-confrontational but as an artist, I’m very confrontational,” he says. He believes one’s ideology, religion or ethnicity should not alienate anyone in the audience and prevent them from appreciating what one has to say through one’s work. “We are actors, we should try to bring change through cinema. Back in college in Chandigarh, I did street theatre but wasn’t part of student politics. There’s always been this dichotomy,” he says. “Acting is a full-time job,” he says. What makes him choose his films? It’s the script, the director, and credible actors. Consulting his manager Sunita D’Souza and his wife Tahira Kashyap ensures his projects have a female gaze which makes it more progressive. And then there is his innate empathy. Yet, he doesn’t take his work home. “Method is very tiresome. I do three films a year and shoot six months. So method would make me extremely self-absorbed.” And who is he in reality? The cold, aloof and stern Joshua of Anek or the goofy muscleman of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui? “A bit of both,” he says, with a laugh.
Scene and Heard
It’s been 20 years of Bend It Like Beckham and Gurinder Chadha’s masterpiece is being hailed in Britain not merely as the highest grossing football film ever but also the most influential in its intersection between race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. The three main leads went on to become big stars, with Keira Knightley, Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers doing much more work. Knightley and Rhys Meyers became bona fide movie stars while Nagra is headlining her own detective show called DI Ray. Archie Panjabi, who played Nagra’s sister, is now a well-known TV star in the US. But Chadha’s representation of marginalised people never quite reached these heights again.