Mumbai: Life is uncertain but you can be prepared is a bumper sticker sentiment, the tagline for Birla Sun Life Insurance Co. Ltd’s advertising campaign, and, when properly packaged, the story of Milkha Singh’s life.

The career graph of the celebrated athlete, who ran his way out of poverty towards sporting glory, has inspired Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s recently released film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, as well as allowed its producer Viacom18 Motion Pictures to push for neat brand fits.

Milkha leapt over personal obstacles, hence the Birla Sun Life Insurance connection. He drank a lot of milk to stay fit, so tick against a tie-up with dairy giant Amul. He is an Indian sporting icon, so another tick against Air India, the national carrier and the only airline around when Milkha set foot on a plane for the first time to represent the country in the international arena.

Milkha ran with Adidas shoes, so there’s another ready-made association. Cosmetics company Garnier Men India found a fit with Farhan Akhtar, the dishy actor and film-maker who plays Milkha. But Monte Carlo? How do you match Milkha and a clothing brand that was launched in 1984, years after the athlete had hung up his boots?

“Monte Carlo was trying to project its sporting range" by tying up with the movie, explained Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer at Viacom18 Motion Pictures. The brand associations followed what he called a long-tail promotional campaign to talk up a biopic about a figure from the distant past.

“The approach was to bring a lost hero to life," Andhare said. Promotional activities, which began late last year, focused on the rigorous physical training undergone by Akhtar to convincingly portray Milkha. “Movie marketing tends to be tactical, but here we had to be strategic and start from scratch," Andhare said.

Over the next few months, Viacom18 and its public relations agency, Spice, steadily released snippets of information about Milkha to the media. Closer to the 12 July release date, Milkha got involved with the promotional campaign, underlining his endorsement both of a movie that lionizes him and the actor who portrays him.

A few months ago, Viacom and Mehra purchased a pair of shoes used by Milkha from the Indian Olympic Association for an undisclosed sum and gifted it to the athlete, who in turn gave the pair to Akhtar at a media event.

After the brand tie-ups came the pre-release screenings for people deemed as influencers, who shared their encomiums through social networking sites such as Twitter. Since Milkha was a soldier, Viacom18 held special screenings at several Indian Army centres.

Paid previews on 11 July, a day ahead of the official release, helped capitalize on growing interest in the movie, which opened on 1,500 screens. Made for an estimated 53 crore, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’s net box office domestic earnings are 18 crore as of Saturday night, according to trade analyst Vinod Mirani.

Milkha’s inspiring and controversy-free life made it easy to push a guts-to-glory narrative, but usually there are multiple challenges in marketing and promoting a biopic about a living person. Family sentiments need to be managed, and controversial aspects of the personality’s image must be accounted for, and the actor cannot be allowed to overwhelm the real person.

The pre-release promotions for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag have dexterously walked the tightrope between plugging Akhtar, who has his own following from his movies, and pushing for renewed acknowledgement of Milkha’s sporting feats.

It’s important to communicate the ideas and values that the subject for while promoting a biopic, said Ketan Mehta, who has directed Sardar, about Vallabhbhai Patel, The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, about the rebellious sepoy from 1857, the unreleased Rang Rasiya, about the painter Raja Ravi Varma, and the forthcoming Mountain Man, about Dashrath Manjhi, a labourer from Bihar who claimed to have single-handedly carved a road through the Gehlour hills over a 22-year period.

“The personality, of course, comes into play, as well as the research you do," Mehta said. It’s not easy to please everybody even when the movie is about a heroic figure—close to 80 public interest litigation cases were filed against The Rising... in various courts, he pointed out.

The biggest mascot for The Rising... was its lead actor, Aamir Khan, who famously grew out his hair and sported a handle-bar moustache for the duration of the film’s promotional campaign. “Aamir is a huge star, and it required only his presence to promote the movie," Mehta said. “Marketing has now become a big player in a film production, and each time we need to invent a new marketing strategy."

A biopic about Mahatma Gandhi might seem a no-brainer, but even Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi ran into its share of bad press, and not all of it was unwelcome, said Anil Dharker, who headed the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) at the time of the movie’s production in India.

NFDC was one of the movie’s producers, putting 8 crore into the project. There was widespread consternation about why a foreigner was making a movie about the Mahatma, and why so many rupees were being lavished on an international production at the cost of independent Indian cinema.

“The shooting lasted in India for a year, and there were constant protests and constant reports," Dharker said. “That was wonderful unplanned marketing, since the movie took up so much editorial space." Interviews with Attenborough and the major cast were shown on the sole television channel at the time, the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. “By virtue of being partly financed by a government body, the movie became a state project," Dharker said.

Gandhi was released in India by Columbia Pictures, even though movie marketing wasn’t the religion it has now become, and there was a lot of excitement before its release, added Kercy Daruwala, who was an employee at Columbia at the time and is now managing director for Sony Pictures India.

“We had our world premier at Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi, and Mrs Indira Gandhi attended the screening," he said. When Mother India endorses a biopic of the Father of the Nation, you know you are past the victory line.

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