“All Bollywood actresses need to understand and accept that controversies are a ‘business’ for media. Only when they adapt, is when they will be able to take advantage of the situations media presents. Otherwise, they’ll risk resisting change, till a new generation comes and laps it up.” -Dale Bhagwagar
“Being a PR guy talking about ‘feminism’, may seem as if I am siding with some of my controversial hoity-toity Bollywood clients. However, I feel that people from the Indian film industry often objectify the word,” says Bollywood PR guru Dale Bhagwagar who has been a publicist to some of the grittiest female celebrities.
As a Bollywood public relations professional and a spokesperson to many celebrities, over the years you’ve worked with several female clients who have been scrutinized by the media in one way or the other. What was your journey like, working with women in the spotlight?
Luckily, I have had a chance to work with some of the boldest and strongest ladies in the industry. I don’t know why they have an affinity towards me, but over time, mostly all my PR clients have blindly trusted me while I have been in charge of their brands and images. And that’s something I really feel proud about. Of course, my PR clients hire me for publicity, hype and crisis management… but I have always told them to follow their hearts. And you know what? The media automatically loves stars who do things from their heart.
Yes, we feel that is how Shilpa Shetty won Celebrity Big Brother in the UK while you were handling the media for her in the outside world.
I worked with her for almost seven years, and found her to be one of the most genuine persons in Bollywood. Apart from being a good actress, she has always been a compassionate human being. And all that goodness worked for her magically on the reality show. See, on a show like Big Brother where cameras follow you 24×7, one can’t follow a PR strategy or have a plan. Because it could all go for a toss there. The best plan is to be your real self and if one is a good person, that comes across on TV. But then, Shilpa is much more than just a good person. She is also a fighter and that stood her in great stead on the show. Apart from winning it, she emerged an international icon against racism — a kind of unique brand for the whole world to look up to.
Aha! Love the way you describe it. You also handled the PR for Priyanka Chopra in her initial days as an actress. Didn’t you?
Yes, I found Priyanka an extremely focused and professional person. After she became Miss World, during her initial days in Bollywood, she faced a lot of controversies and it was interestingly challenging for me to handle her media work for around two years.
You’ve had several instances where your female clients were subject to false rumors and defamation. How easy or difficult is it for publicists to control such rumors about women when compared to male clients?
I’ve worked with a lot of male artists too, like Hrithik Roshan, Randeep Hooda, Govinda, Vivek Oberoi and even with the evergreen legend Dev Anand; a charmer of women even in his eighties. But let me be brutally honest with you. Handling the media for a female artist is much easier than publicizing with a male artist. Because the media is always more attracted towards the female form. Television media runs for footage, and the print and internet media laps up their pictures for news, web wallpapers or photo galleries. While I was looking after the PR for Shilpa Shetty, yesteryears Hollywood superstar Richard Gere planted pecks on her cheeks at an event, and the media went gaga over it terming the pecks as kisses. The news hit front page headlines and I had an amazing PR time encasing the hype for almost a month across all media platforms. I wonder if the media would have gone berserk like that if say, Angelina Jolie had planted pecks on an Indian male actor’s cheeks. Do you get the drift?
Yeah! Talking about hype, do you think Bollywood is frivolous about feminism?
Being a PR guy talking about ‘feminism‘, may seem as if I am siding with some of my controversial hoity-toity Bollywood clients. However, I feel that people from the Indian film industry often objectify even the word.
Any instances of women empowerment that you have dealt with, which stuck with you or taught you a life-lesson, if any?
Oh, there have been lots. Writer and filmmaker Vinta Nanda who has been one of my longest-running clients, has been a crusader when it comes to women empowerment. And I have had a lot of chances to work on social awareness projects with her. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that I am the only spin doctor from Bollywood who has managed loads of mileage for charity and social causes. I’ve publicized an annual conclave called Elevate dedicated to the uplift-ment of women, been part of the Jaag India Movement during Mumbai floods, The Village Project NGO, a short-film festival Vastav – The Reality, and a civil societies revolution movement Staying Alive. Plus, I’ve worked of the PR for projects of The Third Eye program in Mumbai; in partnership between the ‘Asian Centre for Entertainment Education’ (ACEE), India, and ‘Hollywood, Health and Society’ (HH&S), Norman Lear Centre, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA, and funded by The ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘. All of these have centered around women and spearheaded by Ms Nanda. Apart from them, I’ve worked for Renuka Chaudhary’s (a former Union minister of State for Ministry of Women and Child Development in the Government of India) daughter, Poojita Chaudhary’s documentary Gender Bender. Also publicized Miss World Diana Hayden’s contribution to building homes in Los Angeles under a charity project called Power Women, Power Tools. And yes, apart from some thirty odd movies, I’ve handled the PR for Priety Zinta’s woman-oriented super-hit starrer Kya Kehna during the time I started out in my profession.
That’s quite a lot indeed. But you mentioned the words “spin doctor” while answering that. As a PR specialist, do you even need to spin for social causes.
Lol. I should admit, you are good at catching words!! Yes, I do spin for PR of social projects too. Thing is, the media wants spice all the time and social causes would be drab for them to publish if I wouldn’t highlight the glamorous aspects in them. So I do play with words to an extent, as long as its ethical and I’m not bluffing or crossing the line. I’m pretty old-school. I’ve been a journalist before turning PR. Ethics matter a lot to me even when I have to sensationalize news for the gossip hungry media.
According to you what reforms are necessary in India to achieve equality?
The biggest reform should be to first banish the word ‘feminism‘. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be anything like feminism at all. Because the very word brings a thought, not about distinction, but about differentiation — which makes it bad for women. It muddles up the whole concept of equality. Feminism represents the fight to be equal. But when women are equal to men, why do they need the subject of feminism. The more people talk and scream about feminism, the more they highlight inequality. Isn’t it? But if we still have to use the word with the meaning it was coined with, then I feel ‘feminism‘ should be talked about in the sense of something to be felt and realized — not something which needs to be spoken about town or asserted in media. According to me, a true feminist would be a person who realizes its essence without having to speak the word ever.
While majority victims in domestic cases are females, males who face the brunt of domestic violence are often ignored. What are your thoughts on this statement?
Sometimes females do misuse their gender and explore loopholes in law. I have been approached by a couple of actresses who wanted to go to the police station or send legal notices to guys to attract media attention. It’s a PR, PR, PR world and I am not averse to that kind of publicity. But I cross-question such actresses and investigate with my past journalistic instincts to find out if their case is genuine. If it is, I personally accompany them to the police station with the media in tow. But if their case is not genuine, I do not support them in PR and even discourage them from trying to derive publicity with fake news.
Apart from the ones you mentioned, which are the other strong women celebrities you have worked with?
That would be actress and fashion philanthropist Evelyn Sharma, actresses and title holders like Miss India InternationalPooja Batra, Miss India International Priya Gill, Gladrags MegaModel winner Rupali Suri, Miss India Universe Nikita Anand, Miss University World and Miss India Talent winner Kashmera Shah, Miss India Natasha Suri, Rakhi Sawant, Godwoman Radhe Maa whose PR I handle through work for her patrons Global Advertisers, Bigg Boss finalist Mandana Karimi, International chess master Dhyani Dave, Pakistani superstar Meera, filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi for whom I handled a very controversial event once, the late superstar Rajesh Khanna’s partner Anita Advani, actresses Nandana Sen, Sameera Reddy, Shamita Shetty, Divya Dutta, Neetu Chandra, Arjumman Mughal, Sambhavna Seth, Bidita Bag, Narmmadaa Ahuja, Rakul Preet, Soma Mangnaanii, Sherlyn Chopra, Sonali Raut, plus singers Anaida and Carlyto Mohini. These are undoubtedly some of the strongest women I have handled PR for. Am proud of them all.
Controversies like Cobrapost stings dent celeb reputations. Celebs need to earn big bucks from time to time, to support their brand and lifestyle, and maintain their larger-than-life aura. Such controversies when unchecked, slow down business opportunities for celebs and that’s not a good thing, says Mumbai-based PR guru Dale Bhagwagar.
Even before the dust settles on the #MeToo movement in India, thanks to the Cobrapost stings, the film industry is once again in the dock. But recently, Bollywood’s only PR guru Dale Bhagwagar has put up a post on his Facebook, which actually makes for a fantastic case study on how celebrities can be vigilant and save themselves from sting operations.
Or even how they can hire a crisis management expert to boldly tackle or spin the situation in their favour after the sting, in a way that the stinger himself/herself gets exposed.
Stinging the sting
Here is what the public relations specialist has posted: “Got to know that most of these latest Cobrapost interviews doing the rounds, were actually done a year ago. They reminded me of an interesting incident. Four months ago, a girl claiming to be a budding actress befriended me on WhatsApp,” writes Dale who has handled the personal PR for top filmstars such as Hrithik Roshan, Shilpa Shetty, Priyanka Chopra, Vivek Oberoi, publicity for movies starring Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and others, apart from PR for 20 scandalous contestants of India’s No. 1 reality show Bigg Boss.
Dale’s Facebook post describes the meeting with this so-called budding actress with some intriguing details. “We met over coffee at CCD (Cafe Coffee Day) in Oshiwara to discuss PR and proceeded for dinner at a nearby restaurant. In between our candid conversation about PR and the film industry, from the discussion and her body language, my sixth sense told me something was strange. She was encouraging me to talk and probing once in a while. Some of her choice of words were not those of an amateur or an upcoming actress. I suspected she was video recording me,” he writes.
The Bollywood publicist elaborates, “So I casually glanced at her watch, dress buttons and accessories to check if there was any sting camera lens, but couldn’t spot any. I finally zeroed down on her handbag and specifically a metal emblem on it, but I still couldn’t spot any lens, as I was sitting at a metre’s distance from it. The handbag was kept at an angular position on the table. Just to make sure, on the pretext of admiring it, I leaned forward and subtly picked and moved it a bit.”
“As I did that, I marked her expression and reflexes. Flummoxed for a second, she immediately put the handbag back in exactly the same position with the same angle tilt. A few seconds later, she gave a stray look at it, as if to check it was facing the correct direction. The only thing she failed to realize was that my eyes were catching every nuance.”
Playing the PR game
“But I did not let her know and went with the flow of the candid conversation. In fact, now I consciously kept it cool and spiced it up too. I even made up and exaggerated some statements… the kind we call ‘quotable quotes’ in journalism and PR. I also made sure that sat stylishly and smiled more than I normally do,” admits the Mumbai-based entertainment PR expert.
“But I’m still waiting for something like Cobrapost on me to come out somewhere. I do Crisis Management for actors in such situations. So it would be good fun for me to see how I deal with a similar situation on myself. #WhenDaleStungTheSting #BeingDale #GameOn #GoodFun #DaleHasEaglesEyes,” Dale concludes on Facebook.
Celebs in the dock
For the record, the recent Cobrapost sting operation targeted 36 Bollywood celebrities. In an investigation dubbed Operation Karaoke, Cobrapost personnel are said to have posed as employees of a fictitious public relations agency, using aliases.
The sting operation revealed that actors Jackie Shroff, Vivek Oberoi, Sonu Sood, Shakti Kapoor, Mahima Chaudhry, Amisha Patel, Shreyas Talpade, Surendra Pal, Sambhavna Seth, Puneet Issar, Pankaj Dheer and his son Nikitin Dheer, and playback singers Kailash Kher, Mika Singh, Baba Sehgal and Abhijeet Bhattacharya were willing to post favourable messages on social media for political parties.
The list goes on
Other movie artistes on the list included Sunny Leone, Poonam Pandey, Rakhi Sawant, Aman Verma, Tisca Chopra, Deepshikha Nagpal, Akhilendra Mishra, Rohit Roy, Rahul Bhat, Salim Zaidi, Hiten Tejwani and spouse Gauri Pradhan, Koena Mitra, Evelyn Sharma, Minissha Lamba, comedians Raju Srivastava, Krushna Abhishek, Rajpal Yadav, Sunil Pal, Upasana Singh, Vijay Ishwarlal Pawar aka VIP and choreographer Ganesh Acharya.
Much ado about nothing
When we contacted Dale to ask if the targeted film celebrities should sue Cobrapost, his reply surprised us even more than the way he’d attentively caught the sting-in-progress.
“What Cobrapost has done is something any yellow journalism site would do. We can have an endless debate about breach of privacy, about media conning celebrities and making them scapegoats of their pre-planned agenda. But such desperate forms of journalism (if it can be called that) is not new and has happened a lot in America and Britain over the years. Some media outlets take undue liberties in the name of the freedom of the press,” remarks the top Bollywood publicist.
Having said that, he goes on to explain, “If we put emotions and the Cobrapost’s nationalistic spin aside, we will all realize that their videos have made much ado about nothing. Come to think of it, everyone, including political parties, need and indulge in aggressive marketing in today’s times.”
“They hire the best and topmost advertising, marketing and PR agencies to execute their strategies. And who better than popular celebrities to promote their agenda. It’s a cool thing and a done thing.” True that! After all, it’s a PR PR PR world.
Celebs unable to handle spin
“It’s just that Cobrapost seems to have scripted and edited stuff, and presented it as if it’s something jaw-dropping. It really isn’t. Cobrapost has given it a devious spin and our celebs seem to be struggling to manage this new crisis situation on their own,” analyses Dale.
Guarding brand equity and business
“This Cobrapost controversy will disappear and die much faster than #MeToo, though part of the damage will linger, denting overall brand-value; just like #MeToo left an image-damaging trail,” he predicts. “Celebs need to earn big bucks from time to time, to support their brand and lifestyle, and maintain their larger-than-life aura. Such controversies when unchecked, slow down business opportunities for celebs and that’s not a good thing,” says Dale.
So what’s the way out of such situations for the future? “We can take a leaf out of Hollywood here. Like it happens in the West, Bollywood celebs need to cut off direct access outside their inner circle and let the professionals take over — managers, advertising personnel, marketers, social media experts, PR professionals, spokespersons, spin doctors and crisis management specialists. Actors need to focus on acting and earning, not on management.”
Dale feels “that’s the only way forward, if celebrities wish to keep their aura, image and brand intact in the fast-changing ruthless digital landscape. Otherwise, all this ruckus leads to an unnecessary loss of brand equity and business.”