Kiran Rao star power to steer auds to ‘Ship’

Celebrity buzz, theatrical-on-demand deployed to shake Indian art-house marketplace

Kiran Rao
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

HONG KONG — Public endorsement by an intelligent fellow movie-maker cannot harm a film release — especially when the endorsement comes with the star power of India’s Kiran Rao.

Screenwriter and producer, Rao is known on the international festival circuit as director of “Dhobi Ghat” (aka “Mumbai Diaries,”) but home in India she is just as likely to be recognized as one half of a power couple with Bollywood’s most thoughtful superstar Aamir Khan.

And it is at home in India that Rao is using her star wattage to illuminate the domestic release this week (July 19) of “Ship of Theseus,” a critically acclaimed first feature by Anand Gandhi. The pic, made up of three connected tales about the trade in human organs, had its bow last September in Toronto and earned considerable praise before travelling to Tokyo and other festivals.

But Indian art films need more than goodwill if they are to overcome the hurdles that box them in from all sides.

Overseas audiences, even at educated festival level, expect little more of Indian cinema than Bollywood strass, meaning that quality Indian films like “Ship” have more limited international distribution than their European or US counterparts. At home they face an Indian market that lacks an art-house exhibition circuit and where non-commercial films, if they get a theatrical release at all, tend to get taken out months or years after completion or a festival premiere.

Rao is getting on board “Ship” as ‘presenter,’ much in the way that Quentin Tarantino loaned his cult celebrity to the North American releases of Wong Kar-wai and Takeshi Kitano titles in the 1990s. On the film’s posters Rao’s name appears above the title.

But Rao’s involvement goes considerably further than branding by association. She and her marketing, PR and creative team have been working for weeks to create a media impact considerably larger than the film’s very limited promotion budget. “We have been using the little leverage I have to create that very vague thing called buzz,” says Rao. That has involved cutting trailers, shooting promos, and lots of press relations work. She and Gandhi did an early talk show on CNN-IBN with the high profile and ever sympathetic critic Rajeev Masand, and Rao says she has been saving up for a whirlwind of one-on-one TV interviews in the last days before release.

This has allowed the film’s distributor UTV (now part of Disney) to handle other aspects of marketing and distribution with a campaign that is predominantly online. It builds up to a sort of ‘theatrical-on-demand’ regime called “Vote For Your City” that was launched on June 24 and is believed to be the first of its kind in India.

“We had planned the release of the film in 5 cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Kolkata — through this campaign. But movie lovers across India can get the film released in their city via an online voting mechanism [using Facebook],” says Shikha Kapur, executive director, marketing, studios, Disney UTV.

Rao reports that the release is now heading for 25 screens in six cities, with Hyderabad the addition made in response to proven demand.

Rao says she was first alerted to “Ship” by Toronto festival artistic director Cameron Bailey and she later got involved after a screening of it more than lived up to her expectations.

But altruism is not really on Rao’s agenda. “This kind of effort helps us make more non-mainstream movies; me, Anand and UTV. I’m in it for the long run,” she says. “We struggled with ‘Dhobi Ghat.’ There are no specialist cinemas, so we always had to compete for screens with some big blockbuster.”

Of the “Vote for Your City” campaign she says: “In India there has never been an attempt like this to gather this kind of data.”

While calling for changes to the distribution, marketing and exhibition systems in India, Rao says she remains optimistic for the future. “We have such a large youth population who have either rented or Torrent-downloaded that they are very well-informed about the rest of the world and would rather watch a US TV show than a bad Indian film,” she says. “And any film festival in Bombay nowadays is so well-attended.”

While Gandhi is now finishing up his next picture, he and Rao are now considering doing more together. “There’s nothing formal yet. But I’ve found someone whose ideas I like. He’s energetic and full of surprises. He’s infectious.”