Popular folklore in Hindi film trade suggests that nearly everyone in and around the Mumbai suburbs has a script to pitch. An updated version of this could very well be how nearly everyone not only in the Andheri-Versova belt, but across the country is a critic whose word counts when it comes to films. This can probably be seen in how potent a tool word of mouth has become in the success or failure of a film. Irrespective of the budget or the level of publicity, nearly every single film released in the first few weeks of 2019 reveals how word of mouth has played a significant role in the way it has performed at the box office.
In the world that existed before the multiplex era, the so-called smaller films relied heavily on word of mouth to survive a few weeks at the box office. This offered a sense of ‘visibility’ to the film and at times, actors even purchased all the tickets for a few weeks to create a buzz. Jeetendra had advance booked Farz (1969) for weeks, and his father who went to a cinema hall to watch his son’s film with the public was shocked to learn that the entire hall was empty despite a houseful sign. Later, curiosity saw people throng to the theatres and the film picked up. Unlike earlier, when positive reviews from the viewers would nudge a film a little in terms of ticket sales, like in the case of Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996) which became a small-time hit in the morning show slot, thanks to college students talking about it, off late, audience recommendation has begun to translate in a massive windfall in the box office collection, a trend more than visible in the case of Uri: The Surgical Strike, Total Dhamaal and Gully Boy.
Amidst the numerous parameters to gauge the success of a film, the opening weekend haul continues to be important but the manner in which films like Badhaai Ho (2018), a slow starter that benefitted immensely from the positive word, found themselves in the year’s top grosser list suggests a slight shift. A few years earlier, the Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar-starrer, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) also grew with the help of positive word of mouth and set the cash registers ringing. Similarly, Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Queen (2013) and The Lunchbox (2013) shifted gears once people began talking about them and urging more to catch them on the big screen. A recent illustration of the impact of this is how Uri: The Surgical Strike made more money in its second weekend than its opening weekend. The film’s collections refused to slow down, thanks to the manner in which people spoke about the film amongst themselves and it’s hardly surprising that the film not only raked in 243.50 crore (nett) but is also at present the year’s highest-grossing film.
The role of the informal word has only increased in the last few years. In 1999, studio executive Chris Pula relied on positive word of mouth as a marketing tool for Walt Disney Pictures’ The Sixth Sense and designed a campaign around the now iconic “I see dead people” quote by Haley Joel Osment to push people to talk about the film. The film had enjoyed glowing reviews from the critics but it was the audience that continued to talk about the film long after the people who left the cinema halls transformed the film into a word-of-mouth phenomenon that made US$ 672 million. A considerable bump in the collections of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Gully Boy, and the more recent Luka Chuppi and Badla can also be squarely attributed to good word of mouth.
Word of mouth becomes a little more important in the age of social media. A study conducted as part of a School of Communication research course at Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, analysed thousands of tweets to show how buzz influences films. Remember how a tweet from Josh Trank publicly denouncing his own film, Fantastic Four (2015), sealed its fate?
What makes word of mouth a potent tool, which studios and production houses have finally come to realise, is that it’s the only way a film can overcome negative reviews. No one would have expected a Pyaar Ka Punchnama (2011) — which did not attempt to hide its blatant misogyny — to become a roaring success or Total Dhamaal to make a killing at the box office. Some would credit the star power of Ajay Devgn, Anil Kapoor, and Madhuri Dixit to be a factor at play in Total Dhamaal’s case but it can only get people to the screens for the opening weekend. In fact, the reason some of the biggest star-driven films underperformed last year – Shah Rukh-Anushka Sharma’s Zero, Salman Khan-Anil Kapoor’s Race 3 and Aamir Khan-Amitabh Bachchan-Katrina Kaif’s Thugs of Hindostan – also has to do with negative feedback from the audiences.