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Title: Idiot Savant
When Aamir Khan, producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra and director Rajkumar Hirani sat down and watched the first half of the first cut of 3 Idiots together, they knew they were watching something that had the potential to go “big-time". A boisterous drama about three friends dealing with the pressures of engineering school, and one friend teaching them how to dream, was a story they knew would stick. They guessed multiplexes in cities would overflow. They figured they had a fair chance at beating Ghajini, which stars Aamir Khan, and is the biggest-grossing Hindi film of all time.
But something bothered them. In smaller towns regional cinema was still king and Hindi cinema just a joker. In Gujarat a star like Vikram Thakur at his peak could bring in close to Rs 7 crore (a unit of value equal to 10 million rupees or 100 lakh). A top-grossing Hindi film, on the other hand, could hope to rake in just Rs 3 crore.
“We felt we aren't connecting enough with our audience … There's a business capacity of seven, but we are only doing three. So there's a lot of business we aren't reaching out to," says Khan as he talks to us from his Pali Hill apartment in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb. He's wincing from a leg injury sustained earlier during the day but is intent that we hear what he's saying.
“Do they want to be entertained? Yes. Do they like watching films? Yes. But are they watching our films? No. They're watching regional films." It could only mean two things, he reasoned. One, Hindi films aren't marketed well. And two, filmmakers from Mumbai don't understand small-town India. Khan was determined to figure out both answers. But how?
The Ball Begins To Roll
When a team of 25 marketing people met in August 2009, led by Prabhat Choudhary of Spice PR, who helped market four of the top five all-time hits of Hindi cinema, the team didn't know what the central idea to market 3 Idiots could possibly be. Khan's brief, however, was clear. Whatever they did, they had to get to the man in Bhopal and the man in Varanasi.
For a while Khan had been toying with a rather vague idea. The movie starts with Aamir Khan, who plays the protagonist, having disappeared into oblivion. The rest of the flick is about his friends looking for clues to find him. How, Khan wondered, would people react if he disappeared in real life? Would people wonder where he was? Would the media write speculative stories on Khan's whereabouts? But more importantly, how could the whole thing be orchestrated?
All through last August they debated about the plan. They tied up with online gaming firm Zapak. And that was where they found the answer: ARG, or Alternate Reality Gaming. Participants in these games interact directly with characters in the game, work with other participants to solve challenges, analyze the story and stay connected via e-mail, telephone and the Internet. The main narrative for this form of gaming is usually based in the real world.
By September ARG had taken over 60% of 3 Idiots' marketing efforts. A Facebook profile, “Aamir Khan the Pucca Idiot", was created, a page that would be controlled and updated entirely by Khan. It became a talking point because it was the first time an Indian celebrity had done this. People wondered whether it really was Aamir Khan's page. His status updates appeared in the papers. Aamir Khan the Pucca Idiot would be an instrumental part of Khan's disappearance to remote B towns, too.
By October the 3 Idiots team had to activate the game. Before that teams needed to be dispatched to do a recce (reconnaissance) of all the places Khan would visit during his disappearing act--among others, small towns in Gujarat, Punjab, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. It would be expensive and logistics would be a nightmare. “We'd only marketed to 6 to 8 metros," Chaudhary told Khan. “But there are 80 towns with at least one multiplex we had never even marketed to."
Of Doodles and Bum Chairs
By October two months before the release of 3 Idiots, no one knew much about the movie. There were no billboards. No signs at theaters. And to build the suspense, multiplexes were sent bum chairs (like the ones the 3 Idiots sit on in the film) and stickers that read “You are the 4th idiot". No one knew what it all meant.
But on Oct. 30 the 3 Idiots team made their first break of communication. They launched the film's trailer to a gathering of industry people, multiplexes and media. Ghajini was in the media for a year and a half before it was released. 3 Idiots would be in the media for only two months.
In December Khan was also busy designing T-shirts. “I said, 'I can't design, I'm not a designer, but I can give you my doodles,' " says Khan. Pantaloon created a T-shirt line with the doodles, and 3 Idiots Converse sneakers.
Featuring Khan's doodles instead of just replica merchandise worked. Pantaloon sold more than 1,000 pieces a day in its opening week, and then sold out of the merchandise twice. The doodle T-shirt was also created as a gift friends could send to one another on the Aamir Khan the Pucca Idiot Facebook page, whose profile now had almost 2 lakh (each lakh is a unit of measure equal to 100,000) fans.
BusinessofCinema (BoC), which did the digital marketing, launched the Pantaloon gifts on Facebook, plus ticketing applications, and 3 Idiots videos and songs. Most of all, BoC readied themselves for the launch of the ARG game. And then on Dec. 12 Aamir Khan disappeared.
Director Hirani and producer Chopra claimed not to know where he was. All that was left behind was a video on the film's Web site, idiotsacademy.com. “I shot a video, in which I said, ‘If you want to be a part of this of game, well … for two weeks, I will be traveling around the country. I will appear at seven places and give you seven clues to find me. For the first clue, you need to get it from Sachin Tendulkar.' And then I kiss my wife goodbye and walk out the door," says Khan.
I Am Not Here
Khan first reappeared in Varanasi, disguised as an old man. “I couldn't tell anyone who I was," he says. The 3I team shot footage of what he was doing, but no TV stations could find him. Choudhary worried, “How will media take it? Will they think it's a gimmick to ignore?" And at every stage, someone on the team said this would not work.
It didn't help that a lot of the 3I recce team's planning didn't work out. Choudhary broke his collarbone in a rickshaw accident. Instead of spending the night at Varanasi station as planned, Khan decided to find his mother's home in Varanasi.
“I really went to Varanasi to make friends over there. It had to be a genuine process. I didn't know who I would meet or how they would react to me. It was happening organically," explains Khan. He talks for more than an hour about Varanasi, recounting the story of the rickshaw driver, which he calls “damn funny", and of the four men who help him find his mother's house.
After Khan left Varanasi, he let it be known he was there. Twenty thousand people trampled the tea shop where Khan had just been. The local media went crazy. “They found the story fascinating because they saw how unplanned the whole thing was. The English media picked it up only four times in those two weeks, but Hindi news channels and local print and TV media went ballistic. I was on the front page. They would report every new clue we announced, and interview the people I had met," says Khan.
Khan not only evaded the media, but also goaded them. “I had been given the names of 15 editors in each city. So when I left their city, I wrote each of them handwritten letters on my letterhead that said ‘I was passing through your city and felt like having sweets. So I bought some mithai and got you some as well. Love, Aamir'. It was like a tease," Khan says, and smiles.
Khan gave only four interviews to TV stations during the entire tour, all to regional TV stations. Regional stars were selected to interview Khan. On Mahua TV in UP, for example, Bhojpuri star Ravi Kishnan interviewed Khan. “Other than those four, I thought TV stations shouldn't get me. All they get is what I shoot and send to them. I don't have a deal with them, so I don't know if they will bite. But I had not been available, so I knew they were thirsty for me," says Khan.
The strategy was deployed for the print media as well. He steered clear of mainstream English dailies and spoke very selectively to regional newspapers. For the first time in recent history, B towns were clamoring for an upcoming Hindi film.
When they started, the ARG game was just a small part of Khan's disappearance. It was more like a contact program, “something like what Obama would have undertaken," explains Choudhary. But soon many fans found out about idiotsacademy.com. They learned to play the ARG (the first ever for a Hindi film), competing against one another to find out where Khan was. Fans played other games on the Web site, too, racking up around 4.5 million plays, says Rohit Sharma of Zapak, which designed the game.
And not once during Khan's journey was 3 Idiots mentioned. When he went to an all-girl school in Palanpur, Gujarat, to highlight the importance of girls' education, Khan asked the girls to shout their message to TV cameras. “The girls didn't say, '3 Idiots releases in December!' " Aamir Khan the Pucca Idiot's live chat on Facebook had more than 1.25 lakh fans log in from all over the world, just six days before the release of 3 Idiots. Producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra opened his coffers to make the ARG happen; Khan's doodles made the Pantaloon 3 Idiots merchandise line a sellout--"Twice 25!" Khan laughs. Instead, he said girls need as much of a chance to go to school as boys do. “Now people will either connect to that or say, 'The guy is bullshitting.' I think we made a strong emotional connection."
While Khan was in the middle of this journey and excitement at a peak, Aamir Khan the Pucca Idiot decided to hold a Facebook live chat with fans. Khan would be on video, and fans could type in from Twitter, Facebook and Youstream.
The BoC guys expected Khan's live chat to happen from Mumbai. At the last minute they were told to take their high-tech equipment to Delhi and then set it up in a small village outside.
On Dec. 19th, without a single hitch in streaming, more than 1 lakh users chatted with Khan from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the U.S., as well as cities and many B towns in India. It was the first time an Indian celebrity had done something like this. Over 300,000 status updates were shared that day, according to Facebook's international communications team. On Twitter, #AamirKhanLive was the sixth most-buzzed keyword in the world.
Six days after the chat 3 Idiots was finally released.
How much could all of this have worked? The biggest opening any film had ever had was Ghajini, with a first-day collection across India of 9 crore. 3 Idiots' collected Rs 13 crore on the first day. Over that weekend the collections added up to Rs 100 crore. The film was watched in 40 countries. Nineteen days after release the film set a box office record for the industry, grossing Rs 315 crore worldwide. It is the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time, not adjusted for inflation. As we go to print, 3 Idiots had grossed Rs 365 crore.
Khan didn't forget Vikram Thakur and his magic number: Rs 7 crore. 3 Idiots beat it by a mile at Rs 9 crore. Choudhary says from Ghajini to 3 Idiots there's been a 30% jump in collections in B towns like Benares, Bhopal and Faridkot.
Last weekend Chance pe Dance was released. Its net collections on the first day release were 2.15 crore for all India. 3 Idiots got 2.75 crore that day, meaning it's still number one three weeks after release.
- Elizabeth Flock This article appears in the Feb. 5 issue of Forbes India, a Forbes Media licensee.