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(Un) Starry Eyed in Dubai

(Un) Starry Eyed in Dubai

September 17, 2012

Why star-gazing is not a fun sport for a scribe in this city.

Salman Khan is rendered speechless as a woman in the ‘august gathering’ gets up and asks, “Will you marry me?”  For a few seconds, some expressions register on beefy Khan’s face ----  shock, surprise, irritation, disgust and a mixture of all. Frankly, he displays more emotions in that brief period of time than he does during the entire length of ‘Ek Tha Tiger’, ‘Bodyguard’, ‘Ready’ and other recent cinematic gems. However, they are soon replaced by an all-too familiar frown as he drawls, “Sure madam, when I am ready, I will definitely call you.”  The lady, pleased by her bravado, trills, “Thank you, I love you!” The only thing remaining was a ‘mwaah’.

The above scene, by the way, happened last year at a press conference in Dubai where Salman was present to promote one of his dimwitted blockbusters and the woman who proposed marriage to the industry’s oldest bachelor was a journalist.

How embarrassing, did you say? Well, that’s just one of the many scenes that make you go ‘grrrr’ at Bollywood promotional events in Dubai!

Being part of a film and lifestyle magazine, I have been privileged enough to attend most of the premieres and promotional events that take place in the city. And with the increasing importance of the Middle East market, Dubai has become one of the biggest hotspots for Bollywood promotions. In fact, the last two weeks were particularly busy with the teams of three big films visiting Dubai within the span of a few days – ‘Barfi’, ‘Raaz 3’ and ‘Heroine’. Needless to say, whenever I tell people what I do, they exclaim enviously, “Wow, how exciting, you must be meeting all the stars. How lucky you are, wish I could take your place!”

Erm… not exactly, I want to say. Star-chasing sucks and entertainment reporting is probably one of the worst beats in journalism. But since I hate to burst their bubble I play along and regale them with tales of my Bollywood encounters.

The problem doesn’t lie with the stars as such. The trouble often lies with the way events are organised and the manner in which journalism has changed. There was a time when a writer used to struggle for an interview for days together, do his research thoroughly, warm up to the interviewee and finally, through his skills, manage to get a scoop or two. However, in the PR-driven, opportunistic world of entertainment reporting today, the journalist is but a small cog in the wheel of a mammoth publicity blitzkrieg. The result is that meeting stars becomes an utterly predictable, boring affair that yields nothing to anyone involved.

Unlike earlier, getting an interview these days is easy –  the efficient PR team organises one for you if your publication or channel is important enough. But the frills and embellishments that are an inevitable part of such occasions, especially in Dubai, make these events memorable – and not entirely for the right reasons!

Here, promotional events follow a typical pattern primarily because organisers try to pack in as much as possible within 24 hours. It starts off with a press conference in the afternoon followed by a 10-minute one-on-one ‘exclusive interview’ with select publications. Evenings are reserved for charitable events and mall visits to meet and greet the aam janata. And finally the stars visit a pub so that the aam janata can party with them for a price.

Of course, Dubai being Dubai also believes in giving us journos an exotic experience when it comes to interviewing stars.  So you have press conferences held in the desert (as they did for ’No Problem’) or in a yacht (for ‘Heroine’. Kareena Kapoor landed in a seaplane and walked the red carpet laid in front of the yacht).

The press conferences themselves make for a good story. EVERY press meet gets delayed by at least two hours but since it’s Bollywood we are talking about, it’s perhaps unfair to complain about the Indian Stretchable Time.

The bigger the star, the longer the delay. So strictly by that standard, Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest star since every PC (press conference, not Priyanka Chopra!) featuring him starts only three hours after the scheduled time. With others, the delay is usually one or two hours which is entirely tolerable!

After a long wait during which you catch up with fellow journos on the latest filmi gossip, the stars enter the room. The emcee asks you to applaud them as they make their way to the podium. Initially I used to find this appalling; why were scribes expected to turn into admiring fans? We were supposed to just ask questions about their film and relay what they said to the readers, right? But this is Dubai – the fan and the journalist is often one and the same person so well…

Then the q and a session begins which is when you see the people who make the crowd. Socialites, models, random bloggers, families of scribes, event organisers, PR professionals – all are welcome at press conferences here and naturally there is entertainment of the unintended kind. At an event for a recent Akshay Kumar film, a socialite came along with a group of giggly friends and hogged more limelight than genuine scribes. While photographers and journalists present were waiting to ask a question, the lady decided to dance with Akshay who seemed clearly amused by the drama!

Our only hope to get something intelligent and interesting out of a star is then the one-on-one interview which, more often than not, turns out to be a bigger farce. The 30-40 journalists are asked to queue up for their turn for an ‘exclusive.’

Of course the term ‘exclusive’ too has a different meaning here. It means you are alone with the star with just his or her PR team, production guys, organisers, the security and random fans surrounding you.  Often the organisers beg you not to ask any personal or uncomfortable questions. So any hope of getting a juicy quote from Ranbir on who he’s seeing or asking Akshay why he only acts in moronic films are dashed to ground in these 2-minute noodle interviews. And if you exceed your stipulated time, the friendly PR may even poke you asking you to leave since there are others in the queue, waiting to ask pretty much the same questions! Amidst the chaos, you have readers or fans or relatives from the organisers’ side who sneak in and request you to click a picture of them with the star!

Sometimes strict instructions are given on how the interview is to be conducted. A few months ago, Salman was in town for promoting his charitable organisation. And the requests from the organisers bordered on the bizarre – exactly seven minutes and four questions, all related to his charity only. Perhaps this diktat was issued to prevent the subject being side tracked but the event more or less resembled a military exercise. Each scribe was ushered into Salman’s den where the actor was seated like a king with around 40 members of his coterie. He mumbled his answers incoherently the way he always does and before you knew it, your time was up.

The job becomes somewhat tolerable if the star is amiable (which most of them are considering they are here to promote their films) but there are others who don’t bother with niceties. Take for instance, Katrina Kaif who displays no emotion and has her icy stare and plastic smile in place when answering your questions.

One can’t blame them. Promotions are a tough and boring job especially when they have about 40 interviews lined up in day and are expected to answer the same question in a different way each time. Often stars admit to hating the unending marketing blitz that precedes the release of their film (Ranbir recently told me during my interview with him how much he detested promotions).

In such a scenario, it’s not surprising that the journalist becomes just a number on a list. At the end of the day both, the star and the journalist, are tired and frustrated albeit with a small difference – stars get millions for their job while we only get a few routine quotes and a picture for posterity on Facebook.

Indeed, it’s a thankless job especially if you are not the star-struck sort. The interview turns out to be a damp squib since there is no personal involvement from either side. About an entire day gets wasted for a 10 minute sound byte which is no different from what he or she said to your competitor.

Seriously, star gazing is not fun. Does anyone still want to trade places with an entertainment reporter?

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    17.09.12 09:04 PM
    Think of it in positive way. You still get paid to run after them. All jobs are thankless, so I don't know why are you complaining about. There are lots of our country men in UAE who are left out in heat and not being paid by their employers, starving, pennyless and no where to turn to apart from destitute end. So on this note thank your lucky stars and I meant those icy ones. Have a good day.
  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    17.09.12 05:25 PM
    Sounds like a big bore and a recipe for high blood pressure and gastric ulcers! :)
  • Lazy Pineapple
    Lazy Pineapple
    17.09.12 03:03 PM
    Ouch..that really sucks.I believe these days journalism is more of voyeuristic nature where more and more people want to know the private details of a starts life.

    I guess the stars too need to protect their privacy and therefore I guess you get these 10 minutes exclusive interviews.
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    17.09.12 08:58 AM
    "Star-chasing sucks and entertainment reporting is probably one of the worst beats in journalism." Isn't that true of all kinds of journalism today? Most journalists including the most respectable reporters for the leading dailies of the country feel they are nothing but insignificant cogs of a huge commercial machinery?

    Gone are the days when fearless proprietors like Goenka and daring journalists like Shourie could take on the most powerful of the land. Today all that a jounalist has to do is to lip-sync for his masters. But who really cares as long as the money is good? A few idealistic ones who have strayed into this once noble profession must be drowning their frstration in a peg or two.

    If this is true of serious journalism, should you really bother about it happening in entertainment reporting? We have always known that star-interviews are nothing but an extension of their act in the films. Nobody watches an SRK or PC interview in the hope that they would blurt out earth-shaking secrets in an unguarded moment? What good would it do us to know if Ranbir is chasing his 16th heroine or why Akshay has struck a Faustian bargain with moronic film makers? All that we need from them is 'entertainment, entertainment and entertainment." So, let journalistic spoil sports be damned and let the show go on!

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