The name of the game is ‘create buzz’, and films like Udta Punjab show that nothing helps that more than a pre-release controversy.

For the last few months, controversy has raged over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming film Padmaavat (earlier named Padmavati). The cast and crew have been subjected to constant threats of violence, and have been left wondering if the film will ever see the light of day.

This has continued even after clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification (colloquially known as the censor board), as states have banned the release of the film, only for the Supreme Court to overturn the ban.

However, as the old adage goes, ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’. Months of controversy have actually created great recall for the film, and now the only question is whether it would translate into big numbers at the box office when the film releases on 25 January.

Create the buzz, please
Ask any Bollywood film publicist, and she will tell you that the first question a producer is likely to ask on promotions is: ‘how to create a campaign around the film that has the right buzz’?

The word buzz stretches to mean ‘awareness’ and ‘intent to watch’ among the film’s target audiences. For this, typically, a producer would buy advertorials (media net), run digital campaigners, make the star cast do a variety of interviews across all media, buy ad spots on TV, and run radio campaigns.

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The money spent on all this is a considerable chunk of the film’s budget.

The Hindi film industry has seen the mushrooming of a few companies that gives producers an approximate box office collection figure long before its release. Ormax Media is one of these companies, which has developed a product called Ormax Cinematix (OCX). This tracks awareness and forecasts the box office opening for any film that subscribes to its services.

OCX essentially tracks four parameters – buzz, reach, appeal, and interest. Veteran Bollywood producers say it gets it right six times out of ten. That’s a great average for a film industry where the Friday opening largely determines the life of a film and the money it will make.

Nothing sells like controversy
Simply put, controversy creates buzz. In Padmaavat’s case, even after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the film in four states, the fringe group Rajput Karni Sena has been running amok, claiming the film disrespects Rajputs, issuing death threats, and saying it will not let the film release. Padmaavat has been debated on every prime time TV show, and has been plastered on the front page of most newspapers.

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The producers don’t have to convince anyone to watch the film, and neither do the actors. People want to watch Padmaavat.

So strong is the ‘buzz’ that mega star Akshay Kumar, who almost has a monopoly over the Republic Day release, postponed his Padman, knowing it might suffer. A grand gesture it may have been, but it was also a pragmatic one.

But is controversy enough to ensure the success of a film? In a word, no. It might ensure numbers on the first weekend, but beyond that, content is king.

What works for Padmaavat is that the word-of-mouth buzz around the film is equally strong. It has an extremely strong star cast, and anyone who has seen a preview claims it is Bhansali’s best work.

There are several examples of how controversy has created box office success. In 2010, Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan ran into trouble with the Shiv Sena, after the actor tweeted about wanting Pakistani players in the IPL. The Shiv Sena demanded the film be banned, and the protests that erupted did result in ticket sales being affected on day one; however, sales picked up later.

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More recently, in 2016, Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil faced similar ire from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena over the inclusion of a Pakistani actor among the cast. Johar had to go all out to ‘prove’ his patriotism, and even did an apology video, for which he was criticised by many. But the controversy did not affect ticket sales, it just helped it along.

Also in 2016 came Udta Punjab, the controversy over which turned into Bollywood-versus-censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani. The controversy created enough curiosity, and had trade analysts punting on a huge opening for a film, which was otherwise seen as something of a weak opener, given its content. What actually hit the viewership numbers was the film being leaked online two days before release.

The unpredictable box office
Audiences enjoy controversies, but ultimately they have to like the film. Box office pundits will tell you that market trends are changing continuously. It is hard to predict what will work.

Yes, content has finally started to matter, but it might be too early to map a trend. So while the ‘buzz’ might have been created, ultimately the audiences entering the theatres will decide whether Padmaavat is ‘paisa vasool’. #KhabarLive

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A senior journalist having 25 years of experience in national and international publications and media houses across the globe in various positions. A multi-lingual personality with desk multi-tasking skills. He belongs to Hyderabad in India. Ahssanuddin's work is driven by his desire to create clarity, connection, and a shared sense of purpose through the power of the written word. His background as an writer informs his approach to writing. Years of analyzing text and building news means that adapting to a reporting voice, tone, and unique needs comes as second nature.