During my grad-school education, when we were being taught all about branding, we had a module called the X-factor. Basically, each student had to point out a gap in the market, which could be turned into a marketing opportunity.
My X-factor was a more mundane point of booking railways tickets online (I guess I can take heart that I preceded IRCTC). However, a more enterprising classmate had a much more interesting insight on Indian advertising, an industry most of the batch was set to join in less than a year. His take was that the biggest brands in the country - Sai Baba, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth - were built without any assistance from advertising.
The cue set me thinking. Some of the most memorable brands - Harley Davidson, Starbucks - have been built without any major advertising. Some of the most succcessful Indian businesses - Hero Honda, LG - continue to support stinking advertising. And then we had the brand Aamir Khan, continously gaining strength.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Aamir Khan? I think of karmayoga, of taking one's job super seriously. He avoids industry interactions and the filmi press. But his razor-sharp mind shows up when he used the digital medium to build his credibility, http://www.lagaandvd.com/blog.php, and http://www.aamirkhan.com/blog.htm.
After a usual filmi-family start with a blockbuster, Aamir the star changed tack to Aamir the brand in the mid-90s, when he miffed Ramu during Rangeela, and himself got miffed by good friend and on-screen co-star Juhi Chawla. He lost out the Filmfare award to Shahrukh Khan for DDLJ, and denounced Bollywood awards forever. Moreover, he tried to professionalise Bollywood by concentrating on just one film at a time, and Ashutosh Govariker almost finished off his career with a dud called Baazi. As SRK put it so well, 'while he was working hard, Aamir was thinking hard'.
Back then, Aamir Khan used to bug me, especially with his pursuit of perfection and the end-results. He apparently took nine days to select his sailor's cap in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, a remake of It Happened One Night. Wonder what dimension that added to the Clark Gable character.
Moreover, all the baloney of doing one film a year evaporated when those movies turned out to be Ishq and Mela. (I must admit though, I was super-impressed by Sarfarosh, for which John Mathew Matthan waited six years for Aamir's go-ahead). Aamir questioned the fact that Amitabh did not use his immense stardom for better social good against him. But his own doing-good receded when his name was embroiled in romantic escapades of varying degree, and he never clarified them. Again, as SRK told Aamir's fans, 'get a role-model to look upto'.
However, Aamir Khan still had the respect of his peers. Shah Rukh called him the country's best actor before anyone else did. Om Puri held him in high esteem (while he considered SRK an entertainer). After all, he actually was what Naseeruddin Shah wanted to be, an actor with box-office clout.
When I started implementing all my branding lessons in my first job, Aamir came out with two brilliant movies, Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai. While Farhan Akhtar made a very impressive debut with DCH, it was Lagaan which was more of a Aamir swan-song. He produced a movie more than three hours long, backed a risky rejected screen-play about cricket, and supported a flop director. Lagaan turned out to be a milestone of Indian cinema, sending Aamir and Ashutosh to the Academy Awards ceremony, and for ever making an annual phenomenon of nominating films for the Oscars into a discussed news item.
Post Lagaan, Aamir took a four year long hiatus, to return with the disppointing Mangal Pandey. To further establish his method actor credentials, he started sporting radically different looks. I finally bought into the brand Aamir with Rang de Basanti, a brilliant movie, where all he had professed - intelligent cinema for mass-viewing - fitted in like a glove. He had refused to participate in the film's promotion without his co-stars, and more famously (or infamously if you agree to some criticis, whom I disagree with) supported Medha Patkar's activism (the controversy erupted as he endorsed Coke, who themselves were doing some hanky-panky with ground-water in Kerala). If the support lent was actually because of his convictions in the cause (again, I do not really comprehend the issue to share his conviction), then no one should be pointing fingers at him. To rebuff, he even did a CSR sort of commercial with Coke.
Taare Zameen Par is a perfect extension of Aamir the brand. A screenplay written by Amol Gupte over fourteen years, he was supposed to direct it also, while Aamir produced it. They shortlisted Darsheel Safary (who gets a mention before Aamir Khan in the opening credits) to play the protagonist. And then, not for the first time, Aamir had some creative differences with his director. As they thought Darsheel was brilliantly casted, and any delay would have lost the growing-up boy, Aamir, with Amol's approval, took up the directorial reins. After a career accused of ghost-directing his films, he finally was in the mantle.
TZP is again a predictable movie, about a boy suffering from dyslexia, how his environment does not really understand, how it takes a fellow-dyslexic to recognise, and bring the boy back to the mainstream. As Aamir himself pointed out, rather controversially, I think this movie is more real and sensitive in handling a handicap than Black (whose first half was a blatant ripoff of Helen Keller's story from The Miracle Worker). The jist - something I believe very strongly in, especially in the Indian middle-class context which breeds on insecurity - of giving each and every kid his space to grow and learn, was possibly last shown in Kundan Shah's classic Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. TZP also shows up Aditya Chopra's Mohabattein as a cliched romantic drama, masquerading as a take-off on Dead Poets' Society.
TZP is a very serious film, a story told sensitively. In fact, I struggled to smile even once during the film. It takes a long time to narrate the tale, but it drags only during the beginning of the second half, when Aamir discovers Darsheel's dyslexia, and informs his parents of the same (that bus-ride was only to build atmospehere and tug emotions). Most importantly, unlike some flicks by Mani Rathnam, Khalid Mohammad, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and Farhan Akhtar, Aamir is backed by solid research, showed off in his Solomon Islands example and the end-credit documentary. Very novel, I must say!
For a person with a total filmi background, the way Aamir (or was it Amol) gets the everyday middle-class thing right - the strict performance-oriented father, the confused doting mother, the fratenal bonding, the forged leave application, the child's demand for a gift from the returning-from-out-of-station father, the panging-for-mother kid withdrawing in his shell, the Hindi teacher who appreciated learning by rote rather than imagination, the art teacher attracting attention by throwing chalk at the errant student, the ability to laugh at all but oneself - is pure genius. On a discordant note, children do need discipline, otherwise all our famous boarding schools would not have produced all their alumni.
Aamir Khan, who makes a late entry just before intermission, has himself admitted that he would rather not act in his directorial efforts. Unlike RDB, here he looks his age, but still it a bit too good-looking to fit in seamlessly as a teacher. His performace also is marginally on the louder side, not like Amitabh's histrionics in Black, but more in terms of emotions. But maybe then, if Aamir was absent, just like My Brother Nikhil, I would have missed this movie also.
Darsheel deserves all the accolades and credit he gets. His dreaminess is best captured in the animation sequence, possibly a tribute by Aamir to Calvin and Hobbes. Tisca Chopra is apt as his mother, the scene where she discovers his brilliantly conceived flip-book leaves a lasting impression. Even better is Vipin Sharma as his cast-in-stone father. His embarrased failure to go and hug Darsheel, after getting a spiel from Aamir, is the most authentic scene of the movie for me. The music score complements the mood of the film, with the title track standing out.
TZP might not earn more money than OSO (apologies, but I somehow cannot help comparing the two stars). But again as was pointed out at my introductory lecture at my alma mater, the vision for all of us branding professionals was to 'change the world'. Somehow, I feel Aamir does a better job of doing that. Post TZP, I decided against scoring films, as 'every film is special' (or crap).