Ace-publicist Rohini Iyer has a unique “weapon” for netting the who’s who of Bollywood as clients
She takes pride in being the ‘Olivia Pope’ of Bollywood, and is now even taking on New York and LA
They looked like several of the other unassuming twenty-year-olds who walked through the doors of Mocha, in Bandra, a suburb in western Mumbai. The two would often be found at a table sipping steaming hot espresso while chatting away like there’s no tomorrow. They frequented the joint so much, that the staff had allotted a corner booth just for their frequent patrons. But on one particular afternoon in 2003, there was none of the usual callous banter. It was a day that marked the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of the then 21-year-old Rohini Iyer and her gal pal, Rahila Mirza. As they sat across from each other, with their regular warm beverage for company, in walked Farah Khan, then renowned for making many Bollywood stars dance to her tunes.
The famed dance choreographer was exploring a new phase in her film career as she sought to don the director’s hat; and was on the lookout for someone she could trust for the marketing and publicity of her directorial debut, Main Hoon Na. The meeting went as planned and Khan assigned responsibilities and tasks to the budding media publicists till she asked them one crucial question, “So, what’s the name of your company?” Neither of the two had thought about forming a company; all they wanted was to be a part of the mesmerising world of show business. “We told her that we don’t have a company and she said, “Then get one,” reminisces Iyer.
For the budding media manager who had previously managed marketing and branding of several entertainment projects during her stint at entertainment channels, MTV and Channel V, Iyer was well-equipped for the job that Khan had in mind. A few days later, on the way to the first meeting with the production team, Iyer was listening to the radio as BJ Thomas belted out his 60’s Academy-award winner Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and that’s how she found a name for her fledgling firm. With around Rs.5 lakh from their savings and a little more borrowed from friends, they registered the company in 2004.
Farah Khan wasn’t the only one who had a dream debut with Main Hoon Na that raked in Rs.33 crore at the box office in 2004. Iyer made the most of her big-ticket entry into Bollywood and turned her opportunity into an impressive portfolio to attract future clients. As luck would have it, six months post the release of the film, Iyer and Mirza were flooded with calls from all quarters. The first one came from ace filmmaker Mani Ratnam, followed by another from veteran actress, Revathi, for her directorial venture Phir Milenge, succeeded by another from the late artist, MF Husain. Iyer prefers to call it a “blessing”, but any objective observer could pinpoint the perseverance behind all the lucrative work coming her way.
Let’s rewind a little to her teenage years that witnessed the evolution of her distinct thought process. “I have always been the curious child who questioned the ways of the world,” she remarks, while narrating the incident when she questioned her college authorities as to why she couldn’t mention her mother’s first name instead of her father’s on her application form. Nothing deterred this 16-year-old, not even a dramatic first encounter with senior film journalist, Bhawana Somaaya, then editor of film magazine, G, who was reticent to hire an undergraduate. “I went along with a friend who told me that Somaaya was looking for a new writer. Just to get me off her back, she asked me to write a piece on the evolution of Indian cinema over the years,” says Iyer. Being a history major and a film buff that she was, reading up on her assigned topic and weaving it into a long-form narrative wasn’t too hard.
She narrates how her submission the very next day not just shocked but also surprised Somaaya, who hired the college student to write for the magazine. It was here and later at Stardust that Iyer got a front-row view to the world of Hindi cinema and had the chance to get up close and personal with budding actors who are the superstars of today. “Back then, access to movie stars wasn’t so tightly controlled. I would wait around film sets and chat with them. I think they were kind to me because I was still a college student then,” she describes the time when she got the chance to know stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan, Anil Kapoor, etc.
Iyer attributes her disciplined and committed approach to work as a result of her interactions with several of these film stars. “I soon realised that the movie business isn’t as glamourous as it looks. There is a lot of hard work behind the scenes. These actors would work three shifts a day at times,” says Iyer. But her work ethic is something she learnt by observing her mother, whom she regards as her role model. “She worked as a consultant at an architect’s firm and she managed the house as well. There was never a moment when I felt she was not around enough. She always said to me, ‘No matter what profession you choose, be the best at what you do’,” she shares about the woman who is now a director at Raindrop.
Dodging a crisis
It was while working as a film journalist that Iyer identified her future calling. While movie stars at that time had their managers doubling up as their publicists, the work being done was what Iyer calls “superficial”. Iyer is at the helm of a 70-member team most of whom work out of Mumbai with the rest scattered across other states and even abroad in cities like Dubai and London. So, how does Iyer manage to keep herself calm given the temperamental stars and their unexpected crises? “I actually get a rush out of it. If there is no crisis, then I will simply sleep. I can’t imagine a day when there is nothing to do,” says the woman who confesses to checking her email even when on a vacation. This explains her erratic schedule and why no two days in her life are the same. Having proved her mettle as a trusted “psychiatrist”, she finds herself on the speed dial of several celebrities. But with success comes the inevitable list of detractors.
And it has been no different for Iyer, who learnt to deal with negativity from friend and fashion designer, Manish Malhotra. “He once told me that to all those who speak ill about me, I have one thing to say, ‘You may continue bitching, I will continue working’,” she shares. Iyer also reveals how some of this negativity could be the result of her being a publicist who holds up a mirror to her client before suggesting ways to alter any shortcomings. And this – being brutally honest with them about where they lack, rather than massaging their egos, is her weapon; it’s what sets her apart as a publicist, for she takes stock of the task at hand just as it is, before starting to work her magic. “I am outspoken and people don’t like it when you tell them the truth. They’d rather hire people who’d hide their shortcomings so they can feel good about themselves,” she says.
But, such challenges are a constant in Iyer’s career and she has overcome each obstacle to get where she is. Right from the time her accountant and friends advised against setting up a company because she was a woman and might not be able to handle the operations to the time when her partner quit, she has believed in keeping her head down and aiming to be the best she can be at her job. She recalls the time she took over the company from Mirza, when clients found it all right to drop her from projects and go back on their word as she was an “outsider,” and they were no longer answerable to a member of the film fraternity. Rahila Mirza is the daughter of filmmaker Aziz Mirza, to whom superstar Shahrukh Khan credits for boosting his career.
Iyer takes great pride in talking about her entrepreneurial journey but have there been instances where she has faced discrimination being a woman in the male-dominated film industry? “When I started out I had people telling me, ‘You’re a girl and you have just entered the industry. What are you going to tell me that I don’t already know?’ ” she reveals. Many such encounters have lent themselves to another crucial life lesson that Iyer picked up, “Don’t take success to your head and failure to your heart. I’ve seen a lot of people in this business who begin believing the hype created around them.”
Lastly, Iyer has one advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs, “If you have to be successful, then you have to stop limiting yourself and get out of the gender thing. I think women make a deal big deal of it. If you’re good at your job, then you deserve to be paid well, don’t settle for anything lesser than that,” she cautions. The woman who takes pride in being the Olivia Pope of the Hindi film industry is now looking at foreign frontiers with an office coming up in New York and Los Angeles in the next six months. Clearly, for Raindrop, the sky is the limit.