SPECIAL FEATURE: RETHINKING KERALA
courtesy: Frontline Magazine
HOLLYWOOD productions often reach mass audiences in Kerala only on the last leg of their world tour, and the film Eat, Pray, Love is being eagerly awaited in the State not just for what it generally promises to do – entice more tourists to visit India – but specifically for its quirky sound bites and inviting promo-legends:
“I want to go some place where I can marvel at something!”;
“You speak your language with your mouth…. You speak it with your hand!”;
“That’s the problem. Stop trying. Surrender. Go under the garden and just sit there and still your mind and watch what happens!”; “Have you lost touch with who you are? Then risk everything and let yourself go!”
“I am very grateful to her for being so fearless and patient and trusting of an animal, ten times her size, and connecting with it in an instant. That was magical,” says director Prakash Varma in his notes on the film.
The Julia Roberts film, based on the memoir of American author Elizabeth Gilbert, has several such ‘incredible true life’ cues that ought to help the critical Malayalee understand the global travelers’ mind, the compulsions behind Kerala Tourism’s new campaign Your Moment is Waiting and the strong emotions it has evoked – ranging from extreme disappointment to high acclaim for the refreshing commercial.
In this film, Kerala is the backdrop for the dream-like experiences a foreigner lives through as she journeys into the heart and soul of a fleeting, tranquil canvas. The three-minute, Rs.1.25-crore film promoting ‘Super Brand Kerala’ was premiered at London’s Saatchi Gallery in front of 200 celebrity guests on September 21. A global publicity campaign based on it was launched simultaneously in cinemas in the United Kingdom screening Eat, Pray, Love; theaters in Europe, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland; and theaters in India (again, along with the Julia Roberts movie); and through social media, smart phones and Google and television around the world. A print media campaign with haunting stills from Your Moment is Waiting is to be launched soon.
From the late 1990s, Kerala Tourism has been a trendsetter among Indian tourism boards, with its arresting global campaigns such as ‘Water Colours by God’ and ‘Life in God’s Own Country’, its professional coups like getting M.F. Husain to paint for Coffee Table ‘Kerala’ or letting love-struck international celebrity couples roam around the State incognito, relishing the feel of the beach sands under their feet, riding trains and houseboats, singing bhajans inside crowded temples or enjoying beer with unsuspecting locals in city hotels.
But surely it has been a while since that famous picture-postcard description of his Kerala experience was offered by Paul McCartney to his travel agent: “Weather is divine, so is food, music, entertainment, sea, train rides, accommodation. People are warm and friendly. Heather’s [then a new bride, now divorced] birthday was on a flower-bedecked houseboat in the middle of a starlit lagoon.” The Kerala Tourism invitation cards were beginning to look jaded, and hence a brand new campaign, State Tourism officials say.
“Our first such commercial, ‘Water Colours by God’, had its emphasis on bringing out the natural beauty of Kerala; the second celebrated life in God’s Own Country. The shift in emphasis was part of our marketing strategy. In Your Moment is Waiting we needed to carry it further, to drive home the point about those exclusive moments individual travellers always seem to discover in the State, and we thought we needed to do it without using the cliched icons and symbols associated with the State. That was the brief given to the agency [Stark Communications Pvt. Ltd] that did the creative work for the new film,” said M. Sivasankar, the Director of Kerala Tourism.
“My team was exhausted looking for the right cast. I needed a face with a raw appeal…. We finally found Miriam, who fit the bill perfectly, and she has a demeanour that is intrinsically spiritual,” writes the director.
But sample some of the responses the commercial has evoked: “Visuals are haunting, elegiac, the film impossible to ignore; will appeal to epiphany seekers…. But not enough to evoke real Kerala, its greenery, its waters, its people, its dances; Parts look like Africa! Seems arresting but inauthentic.” (Shashi Tharoor, MP, on Twitter.)
“It begins with a gold-tinged scene of a waterway at dawn. Burnt-out husks of dead trees rise from the water like the Devil’s fingers – and after more than ten seconds, one of them moves! The landscape is alive! Run for your lives! It is in fact a humanoid figure, long-legged and brandishing a spear. There are no signs that it will be aggressive, but one senses that it might become so at any moment. WHAT THIS MEANS: Welcome to Kerala.” (From ‘Your Moment of Horror is Waiting’, which is described as “a handy and humorous take” on the film and published in the online magazine NRI.)
“Let me congratulate the agency for selling a three-minute ad to the client in an age where even 30 seconds is luxury!… The film makes me uncomfortable, it’s spooky, eerie and definitely not the Kerala that I would sell or the world would buy…. You cannot have advertising that gnaws away what the truth of the land is all about…. The one that really kills it for me is the music. Why does it sound African? I am not saying you can’t import music. But not when Kerala has its own signature. The foreign accent takes me away and makes me expect to see another country. The logo comes in as unexpected. This film has no soul because the soul doesn’t belong to the body.” (An advertisement professional, as quoted in www.exchange4media.com.)
Harsh words, no doubt. But there have also been allegations that Your Moment is Waiting is similar in many respects to a series of short, stunning destination commercials titled Estrellas del Bicentenario (The Stars of the Bicentennial) produced by Televisa, one of the largest media companies in Mexico, to celebrate the bicentennial of the country’s independence. “There is absolutely no comparison [with any other film],” Prakash Varma, the director of the Kerala film, told Frontline (see interview).
Kerala’s Tourism Secretary Dr V. Venu said the film indeed was a “disruptive commercial” bound to generate such extreme views because “it was meant to challenge the traditional notions of what a destination advertisement should be. All destination ads fall into a certain predictable pattern, with pretty pictures, aerial vistas, exotic art forms, and so on. But this commercial was meant to be different, to stand out,” he said. “Had [the film-makers] trusted the cliches and produced something like ‘Water Colours by God’ or ‘Life in God’s Own Country’ again, people would have ignored it completely. This commercial is impossible not to notice. We expected extreme reactions, and the negative reactions have all come from the diaspora, not from the audience for whom it was meant. Among the latter group, we found a lot of interest, awe and attention,” Sivasankar said.
But who exactly are the film’s target audience? Kerala had over a period of time marketed itself as a premium destination for the discerning traveller, and not as a mass tourism destination. “That is Kerala’s niche,” the Tourism Director said. “We are targeting such an audience, within the country or outside, and are promoting suitable high-profile, premium category destinations for them. Tourism is considered an important value-add for the State’s economy. So we need to target visitors who can spend well. Where those visitors come from is immaterial to us.”
Though the film is being called a commercial, the Tourism Department sees it purely as a branding exercise, he says. “It is not as if we believe that people will see the film and immediately pick up the phone. It is not a commercial like ‘Call Now! Get 20 per cent discount.’ We are trying to raise the expectation levels and to reach the message across to the target groups – and it is difficult to know its immediate impact. There is no call for action in this commercial. The only thing in it is the subtle suggestion, ‘Hey! Your moment is waiting.’”
Asked about the criticism, Venu agreed that the film has got its fair amount of abuse, but only from the people of Kerala – “first from a group favorably inclined but who are still genuinely concerned about why the commercial is so unlike the ones produced earlier and whether it will deliver. They believe that it is a bit ‘dark’ in its visual treatment and concept; that it offers a bleak picture rather than bringing out the traditional charm of a Kerala Tourism ad. To these people my answer is, it is in the question itself – because that is precisely why it should look different.”
“Then there are a lot of Malayalees outside Kerala, including professional film-makers and artists, who are extremely critical. They are concerned that the ad has no familiar image; it fails to project those iconic images associated with the State, and so on. True, Malayalees feel a sense of ownership and pride about their land and everything associated with it, and the ad hurts both these feelings. This is not a feel-good collection of breathtaking pictures. It has a special job to do: to stand out among other tourism destination commercials, leave enough impressions in the mind of the viewer and make him ruminate about the ad; and to retain an element of mystery which will spur him to enquire more about the destination. Its job is not to make the Malayalee feel happy,” he said.
Traditionally, once they are launched, such campaigns by Kerala Tourism go on until the next movie is made, “may be every five years or so”, according to Tourism officials. Critics will therefore have to grin and bear it or let the film grow on them until they like it – or, worse still, wait until it triggers a copycat revolution in other States. Till then, tourists around the world will continue to think Kerala and hear the music composed by Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman (of the London-based One Giant Leap band) and sung evocatively by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, and watch the Swedish model Miriam Chinnelo Ilorah, “with her raw appeal, and a demeanour that is intrinsically spiritual”, roam around the sacred groves, the village paths, the backwaters and the jungles of Kerala, experiencing her moments of epiphany – in a dead tree-trunk on a serene lake suddenly coming to life, the charming grimaces of a Kathakali performer, a frenzied hair dance inside the rustic privacy of a sacred grove, or a Theyyam artist’s feverish ravings – and, at the very end, a “fearless, patient, and trusting” tete-a-tete with an Indian elephant.
Time will tell whether international travelers will follow Ilorah’s itinerary in Kerala or take their cue, instead, from Julia Roberts to visit the rest of India, caress an elephant’s trunk, timidly, and catch the next flight to Bali.
See Video Youtube.com/your_moment_is_waiting