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Pihu’s 'edgy' telemarketing strategy leaves a section of the audience disturbed

Computer-generated calls have a child in distress after which receivers get a link to save the child. The link leads to the Pihu trailer.

Mayur Lookhar

Producers Siddharth Roy Kapur and Ronnie Screwvala, who are collaborating on a slew of projects, have picked up some fine stories. One of them is journalist-turned-director Vinod Kapri’s film Pihu, the gripping tale of a two-year-old left practically alone at home.

The film's trailer left many who viewed it with their hearts in their mouths. But now the film has also caused some eyebrows to be raised with the makers adopting a rather bizarre promotional strategy.

The makers are apparently using a recording of a traumatized child to call select people, who naturally get worried, click on a link sent by the anonymous number, and land on, well, the Pihu trailer.

While some marketing genius obviously thought this was a great way to promote the film, some of those who have received such calls were not amused. The strategy was exposed not by the film's makers, but by criticism on Twitter.

“Got a call from an anonymous number. A baby wailed about her mother and dad, and hung up. Disturbed, I tried calling back, in vain. Got a message with a link to help the child. A link, as it turns out, of Pihu's trailer. A horrible idea, a disgusting invasion of privacy,” tweeted Sudhir Srinivasan, entertainment editor of The New Indian Express

Sudhir Srinivasan was even more critical in his subsequent tweet.

“And here is the icing. My number is registered with the Do Not Call registry. But, clearly, such things don't matter in our country. It takes special insensitivity to make unsolicited calls and play recordings of traumatized children so you can promote a film. Pathetic.”

Sudhir Srinivasan's tweet was retweeted by over 1,300 tweeple. "What kind of nutcases think it's okay to do this? Next they'll activate fire alarms and play the trailer in the designated assembly area where people evacuate to. Dolts," responded one.

Another said, "I received so many complaints for just sharing the trailer on my wall! But this is the height. Ek toh movie disturbing, ab promotion bhi [The movie is disturbing, and so is the promotion]!"

Director Vinod Kapri appeared to be clueless about the gimmick when we called him. “I’m not aware. Let me check,” he said. But we could not reach him again when we tried to get in touch after a couple of hours.

Both Roy Kapur and Screwvala remained unavailable for comment. A source close to the film's team, however, defended the marketing strategy: “If you have seen the trailer, you know what the film is about. A lot of people have found it to be disturbing but intriguing. So, while a lot of people are scared, they still want to watch it.

"The makers wanted to create the same intrigue in an audio call," the source continued. "Computer-generated calls were made to some people. Some have not found it to be in good taste, some have questioned how we could do such a stunt.

"But I would like to tell those people that the movie is based on a real incident. Parents should see this film. We don’t have a Shah Rukh Khan, but we are trying to put our content out there.”

What about the possibility of the strategy being seen as misleading, insensitive, anxiety-inducing and also, as the journalist tweeted, an invasion of privacy?

“We were aware that a lot of parents might not want to see this film," the source responded. "We were also aware of these concerns while formulating the strategy. As I said, this is a content-driven film. And the strategy makes you spend at least 10 minutes in a conversation with us.

"Invasion of privacy? To each their own. We respect the gentleman’s reaction. But we would not base our reaction to the campaign on one man’s feedback. We are just trying to make sure we knock on enough doors for people to realize that an instance like this has happened, can we do something to stop it in future?”

Brand marketing expert Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consults described the strategy as edgy. “It is a unique way of promoting and marketing a film," Bijoor told Cinestaan.com. "It is a unique way of linking the storyline and weaving it into the lives of people who are likely to be watching or not watching the film. In marketing terms, it is edgy and buzzy."

However, he was critical of the strategy. “In my view, it is extremely important not to cross the line between cinema and reality when it comes to sensitive subjects such as this," he said.

“This is a small child, this is about a missed call, a messaging which would say save a child," he explained. "It is a very serious subject. A serious subject needs to be dealt with sensitively rather than with a marketing glove. It is important to appreciate that this could desensitize people.”

Bijoor pointed to the risk of someone mistaking a real crisis for a marketing gimmick and ignoring it, and called upon all concerned to treat sensitive issues with seriousness. “It is extremely important to respect sensitive issues and leave them outside the ambit of marketing, whether classy or crass," he said. "In my personal view, this shouldn’t be done. It is a domain you must not traverse. As it is we have enough insensitivity in society. We don’t want to deepen that."

From the perspective of the filmmakers, the source seemed to suggest that such marketing would, while helping to promote the film, also increase awareness of the possibility of children being endangered. But Bijoor disagreed. “There are other ways of doing that," he said. "What this strategy does is it creates drama in the life of an innocent person. Somebody gets a call and gets worried. That drama is unnecessary. That drama will desensitize that person tomorrow if a real call comes.”

But Bijoor did not think of this as an invasion of privacy. “Privacy is dead anyway," he quipped. “I don’t think any of us has any privacy. We get n number of calls from all kinds of marketing companies. We are all out on social media. One is being tracked on a continuous basis. If you have searched Google, your privacy is gone. So I am not worried about the privacy issue.”

Bijoor also did not think the edgy strategy would have a negative impact on the film's prospects. “The number of people they would have touched through this activity is not going to be large," he said. "I don’t think it will hurt the film. But as a marketing tool, there is a thin line one must not cross.”

Pihu, which was the opening film at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last November, is set to be released on 16 November.

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