How Pathaan scripted history without a roar

How Pathaan scripted history without a roar
How Pathaan scripted history without a roar


Pathaan, which had netted over 507 crore at last count, is now the highest grossing original Hindi film of all time

Three days after the theatrical release of his action drama Pathaan, actor Shah Rukh Khan took to Twitter for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session, his fifth that month. Riding on the euphoria of his biggest box-office success after a spate of setbacks over the past few years, Khan, 57, took on a bunch of questions— on his blockbuster film, his ripped body, the gravity-defying stunts, the cameo by Salman Khan and more.

But, one answer stood out. A user with a Twitter handle that incorporated SRK (the actor’s initials), wondered how Pathaan had been “roaring at the box office despite no marketing, promotions or pre-release media interactions". Tongue firmly in cheek, Khan replied: “Maine socha sher interview nahi karte toh iss baar main bhi nahi karunga! Bas jungle mein aakar dekh lo (I thought lions don’t give interviews. So, I won’t either this time. Just come and watch the film in the jungle)".

The reply was savage, witty and trademark Khan, and as brazenly truthful as it could be.

Pathaan, which had netted over 507 crore at last count, is now the highest grossing original Hindi film of all time, likely to beat the record held by the Hindi version of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. It’s also the fifth Indian movie to surpass the 1,000-crore mark across the globe. So how did the movie achieve the feat without any high-decibel marketing blitz that is so typical of big-banner movies?

It all points to a wise, low-key, targeted marketing strategy that capitalized on Brand Khan, his enormous fan base, social media buzz, well-timed teasers and songs plus some smart publicity gimmicks that were less splashy but kept the excitement bubbling till the release. And yes, almost zero media interactions, too. In short, it was a gamble that fully paid off.

The FOMO effect

The spy entertainer, backed by Yash Raj Films (YRF), invested in a marketing campaign that nixed media interactions, city tours or TV appearances, which is the norm. Instead, the producer mobilized Khan’s massive fan base, especially on social media. They also cashed in on nostalgia around his absence from the screen for over four years, to create buzz and anticipation, making it seem organic and seamless. Fan clubs aside, film industry experts say excitement around Pathaan had peaked even among regular movie-goers by release date.

The appeal (audience disposition to watch) for Pathaan remained above 80% since the start of the campaign and reached a high of 88% on its release day, Gautam Jain, partner at media consulting firm Ormax, says. It is the highest for any Hindi film (original or dubbed) in the last three years, he adds.

Given that Pathaan was becoming the ultimate water-cooler conversation, a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) built up—so much so that it appeared uncool to not watch the movie, even if some only came back to say they hated it. Theatres even witnessed hooting, whistling and dancing in the first few days—a phenomenon that has become rare— confess cinema owners. One, because most recent Hindi movies have failed to strike the right chord especially with mass-market audiences, and secondly, because the pandemic and streaming platforms have kept people away from theatres.

Fans take a lead

Pathaan’s marketing plan worked on the principle of “less is more", says a senior executive at a digital agency that designs campaigns for Bollywood films, on condition of anonymity. Adding that Khan is one of the few actors with maximum number of active fan clubs, unlike the younger actors, the executive adds, “The fans are super loyal to him and proactively reach out to plan activities around his releases. All that the production house needs to do is channelize this energy."

Khan, who has fan clubs in geographies ranging from south America and Indonesia to Kolkata and Bengaluru, saw his film benefit from bulk bookings especially on the first day of its release. Some of these clubs, like the Shah Rukh Khan Universe Fan Club, have over 500,000 members on Twitter alone.

Though Pathaan starred two other A-listers, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, it primarily rode on Khan’s fan following, making it a one-man show and allowing for one line of communication. Moreover, it has been a YRF strategy for long to engage with fan clubs of their lead stars.

“They believe in a deep, fruitful and meaningful relationship with fan clubs and a lot of things are done in tandem," says Nikhil Taneja, co-founder and chief executive officer of Yuvaa Originals, a Mumbai-based youth media, research and impact organization. Taneja has worked with YRF in the past. The idea is to give access to pictures, trailers or songs to fan clubs on an embargoed basis in advance, and seek their feedback. Even after the theatrical release, special screenings were held for verified fan clubs to build loyalty, industry experts say.

While YRF declined to comment on Mint’s queries on the unconventional marketing campaign, industry watchers believe a concerted plan to “create scarcity" helped. Anticipation around Pathaan was built both by default and design, says Harikrishnan Pillai, chief executive officer and co-founder of digital agency TheSmallBigIdea. “The excitement around an SRK movie was gained by default. He is one of the largest brands in the country and was back to the big screen after a nearly half-a-decade hiatus. The film survived entirely on the back of brand SRK," says Pillai.

As part of a designed strategy though, the team was conscious that Khan’s fan army was going to get activated and they needn’t do anything beyond that, he adds. Also, addressing press queries may only have put the actor in a piquant situation. “So, while he remained scarce to the press, he made himself available to fans (through social media interactions). That, in turn, was captured by entertainment portals or content creators who made umpteen Reels on him," explains Pillai, adding that extensive media interactions are losing charm. Take actors Ajay Devgn and Tabu who didn’t go all out to promote their mystery thriller Drishyam 2 that released in November. The film raked in over 240 crore, one of the rare profitable Hindi films post the pandemic.

Mute the press

Experts feel the decision to limit media interactions was possibly taken after a song from the film stoked controversy. Already riled by the title, hardline Hindu groups protested against Padukone donning a saffron-coloured bikini in the track Besharam Rang. “It was a brave and difficult choice but given that SRK was the lead, having him answer questions at different events may have triggered further controversies. In this case, the focus and discourse centered around the film and the return of Khan, that too in a never-before-seen action role," says a senior film producer, declining to be named.

YRF was wary about over-exposure. It announced the project only in March though shooting had commenced nearly two years before that. “They don’t believe in putting things out there, and that’s been the case for all their films, be it Pathaan or Shamshera, about which nothing was known post the initial announcement until the first trailer came out," says the producer.

Smart and seamless

Pooja Dua, account director, The Rabbit Hole, a video content solutions agency owned by Zoo Media, says smart integration with events based on SRK’s areas of interest, like the FIFA World Cup, or having the trailer play at the Burj Khalifa, given his long-term association with Dubai, ensured seamless social media waves.

Jain of Ormax prefers to term the campaign restricted rather than unconventional. He points out that the strategy was to keep it limited to video assets and PR around the film. “Since the assets, including the teaser, songs and trailer closer to the film’s release, were well received by the audiences, any attempt at creating a controversy did not spoil the excitement. Launching both songs before the trailer was a good move since the teaser had already established the genre. This gave a good time window for the songs to gain popularity as well as to keep the buzz about the film high," adds Jain.

The biggest win for the campaign was the PR around the film online as well as offline, which spoke less about the film but invoked the nostalgia around SRK as part of movie-goers’ lives over the last 30 years. Ahead of the release, fan clubs and individual creators began to post Reels and videos on Khan, incorporating clips and songs from his older, iconic hits, many of which went viral. “Whether organic or inorganic, this helped to bypass any attempt at spreading negativity around the film and ensured wider appeal for a genre in which the star has not made many films," says Jain.

Universe appeal

Keeping mum on controversies or avoiding media interactions, trade experts agree, was a master stroke. So was YRF’s decision to position the film as the next part to its already popular spy universe, which includes hits such as Ek Tha Tiger ( 198.78 crore), Tiger Zinda Hai ( 339.16 crore) and War ( 317.91 crore). The first two star Salman Khan, who reprises his eponymous character in Pathaan in a special appearance, emulating the familiar crossover of Hollywood superhero films. War, featuring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, now holds the record in Hindi films for the third highest opening day for an original and ninth highest grosser of all time. The fact that Salman would be making a cameo in Pathaan was known for a while, adding to the anticipation, though YRF never confirmed the same.

“The big takeaway from Pathaan is that audiences are giving a huge thumbs-up to films that are part of a universe they are familiar with. The same happened with Sooryavanshi (that was part of Rohit Shetty’s cop universe, which includes hits like Singham and Simmba) and Drishyam 2 (the sequel to a hit). Franchises are the way forward because stars cannot pull viewers on their own anymore," says Bihar-based independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan.

Trade experts like Chauhan say Pathaan’s success is a signal that audiences want the assurance of an entertainer in theatres and franchises ensure the same. “YRF cashed in on 10 years of goodwill (since the release of Ek Tha Tiger). With a franchise, the audience knows what to expect. Then you don’t have to tour the country or yell from the rooftops to woo them to cinemas," he adds. Pointing out that Salman’s Tiger would be akin to Marvel’s Captain America and Hrithik’s Kabir (his character in War), Chauhan puts SRK closer to Iron Man, who is far more mass-market with his sense of humour and ability to entertain.

Comeback Khan

Some of Pathaan’s appeal may also have much to do with emotion and the return of the underdog, in this case Khan. He was coming back to the big screen after a period of lows, professionally and personally. A series of flops and a long hiatus from movies was only exacerbated by the arrest of his son Aryan in 2021. When the boycott trend also caught up with the actor, he attracted a wave of solidarity, even among those who do not ordinarily go to the movies. This includes women, who may have felt alienated by recent hypermasculine hits like KGF and RRR, says the producer mentioned earlier. Pathaan, while being an action film, is seen as more wholesome fare.

“Everyone loves the underdog," says the producer, adding, “A lot of people feel reducing SRK to his religion and community is disservice to him as an actor and human. It’s like everyone was waiting to show up for him in some way and at the same time. This is just the kind of commercial film that allowed us to leave behind the two tough years we all have had."

Evidently, then, as the king regains his glory in the jungle, Pathaan’s success shows that the lion doesn’t always have to roar.


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