A shot of parched earth–and on it the words, ‘Once upon a time in India’. A low rumbling of clouds. As the echoey, surround sound of “Ghanana Ghanana” begin, a group of men look up in awe. One of them takes off his gamchha, as if in anticipation of something big. AR Rahman’s thumping percussions pick up to unveil a kaleidoscope of images, cut so fast that you barely register any. Meanwhile, Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone introduces us to Lagaan, ending with a close-up of Aamir Khan, suggesting a face-off worthy of the movies. 20 years since its release, the “teaser” of Lagaan is both an example of packing in a lot, and yet revealing so little. Nothing prepared us for that great twist in the tale, but it was a first-rate promo that generated curiosity and created intrigue, a purely cinematic product of editing, imagery, graphics and sound (sound design, song, voiceover).
Trailer editor Binny Padda remembers downing half a bottle of rum, neat, as he waited for Khan to arrive at Adlabs, Film City to see the final version of the teaser. Khan saw it and clapped. For Padda, it was as if a mountain had been lifted off his chest. Without saying a word, he left office, took a cab and went straight to Olive bar, Bandra, where he treated strangers to drinks with the twelve thousand bucks he was carrying. Around the same time, Padda was working on Dil Chahta Hai. Like many other industry practises, these two films kicked off a more professional promo-making culture. Over the last two decades, Padda has made trailers, TV spots and song promos for some of the major Hindi films: Koi Mil Gaya, Rang De Basanti, Dabangg, Dev D, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur, Barfi, Piku, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Andhadhun—you name it. He and his brother Ravi started Pentacle Creationz, which has pioneered modern day Hindi film visual promotion as we know it, and paved the way for other similar companies such as Warriors Touch and Promoshop.
Promos lie so outside the ambit of usual film discourse that it’s easy to ignore that it involves creativity—a feel for audio-visual juxtaposition and a genuine enthusiasm for movies. Padda’s “body of work” is proof that promos can be artful, and generate anticipation. Such trailers have increasingly become a rarity: boring assemblage of scenes from the film that follow the standard beats of the story, with graceless change in musical cues, and shoddy, even tacky, graphics. It’s perhaps telling that Padda’s last job was Andhadhun—a deliciously wicked trailer cut to Amit Trivedi’s jazz drumming score that introduces us to the characters but tells nothing of the story, all the while teasing us with the prospect that the Ayushmann Khurana character might not be blind after all (something we are still not sure of).
Padda has since moved on from making promos. In an interview, he talks about why Lagaan changed the way Hindi film trailers were made, the problem with contemporary trailers, and why sound is key.
When you were roped in to make the promos of Lagaan, what was the brief?
We had been strictly told by Aamir Khan that we can’t show anything about cricket. That has to be seen in the theatre only. We could show nothing that would be suggestive of cricket.
Do you remember that was the impact of the trailer like?
Lagaan was hyped even before the teaser came. Everyone knew that Aamir Khan was shooting in Bhuj, that he’d taken over the village. There were a lot of stories like that. I remember before I was called to do the film, I saw a crew guy wearing the Lagaan T shirt and I was like, ‘Fuck man lucky guy, worked on Lagaan.’ So it had that air.
The teaser came and went. People were like, ‘Okay, nice, we will watch it obviously. I mean look at the look of it etc’. I think that’s what did it. When they came to see it, they came to see just like a normal everyday kind of a thing and that’s when it went through the roof. This strategy actually worked that way. It was a deliberately low-key teaser, which ran for 30 seconds.
Generally, our mandate is to get people as excited as you can. You need to fill in the first three days. But this man didn’t have any of those things. He just wanted a fair communication, a simple communication. He knew that the film was strong. Even if 10 people would come on the first day, it would bring everyone. When you are confident about your product, it’s easily drives the creative for the campaign.
By contrast, trailers these days tend to give away too much.
People have forgotten what a trailer needs to do. What they are doing right now is giving you a concise version of the film. They have forgotten that you need to hold back.
The gap between the first promo and the release has shrunk hugely.
People don’t have the temperament to wait for it. There’s no longevity in campaigns anymore. You just need to excite people and get over with it. That time people used to play one song for 2.5-3 weeks. It used to be like Chitrahaar days.
Lagaan had a window of three-three and a half months between the first teaser, the song promos and the release. I think they got in touch with me a year before the release and I worked on the campaign for 6 months. My company has done over 500 films in the last 20 years, but I don’t think I have worked on a campaign that long.
There was no promo culture pre-cable TV. When MTV and Channel V came in, that changed everything. Someone felt, ‘Okay we can use these channels; they need this revenue.’…Before that “theatricals” used to be song-two dialogue-song-action—that’s it.
Why did it take that long?
We were taking a big technical leap with Lagaan in terms of trailers. Before Lagaan, theatrical promos used to be of a terrible quality. Promos were made largely keeping television in mind. The telecine was used to convert the negative into video, which was suited for television broadcasting. Now, when you played the same promos in a theatre, they would blow up and get pixellated. It was a complicated technical problem, but we wanted to figure this out. In order to get it right, we had to work directly with the negative to cut the theatrical promos. We did it in Lagaan first, then Dil Chahta Hai.
Why did no one bother to solve this problem before?
Scanning was an expensive process at that time. Trailers and promotions were just catching up. Also scanning used to take a crazy amount of time. One frame took 12-15 minutes. Add do that, you didn’t want to mess around with the mother negative too much. I remember Anil Mehta (the cinematographer of Lagaan) being anxious about it when we took this call. We were handed over the negatives very carefully and we didn’t want to expose the entire reel.
I was starting out. Lagaan was my third film, after Har Dil Jo Pyaar Karega and Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, and quality control was the most important thing for me. And it was the launch of Aamir Khan’s production house, so he didn’t leave any stone unturned. It didn’t matter if it took months. He needed the quality to be right. It was a crazy exercise.
What was trailer making like before Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai?
There was no promo culture pre-cable TV. When MTV and Channel V came in, that changed everything. Someone felt, ‘Okay we can use these channels; they need this revenue.’
Before that “theatricals” used to be song-two dialogue-song-action—that’s it. It all used to be analogue. So it was done in labs. Then the digital suits came in. But even then it used to be very unorganised. The editor of the film had the liberty to make whatever he wanted; he would obviously ask the director that it’s not getting miscommunicated.
For a long time, trailers used to be an afterthought. I’ll sound pompous but it became an industry because we structured it in a certain way, and it started with Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai.
How did you start making trailers?
My brother, Ravi Padda, used to head the film division of USL, which was owned by Ronnie Screwvala. When I flunked my first year, my mother told me to go to Mumbai and join my brother. I started working as a “patching guy” in a room, almost like an electrician. And then one day, Sajid Nadiadwala came to my brother and said he is stuck with his film’s trailer, and that his editor wasn’t getting it right. In one night I designed the trailer of Har Dil Jo Pyaar Karega. That’s how it all started.
What have been your biggest highs as a trailer editor?
We had done Kahaani, where the last shot in the trailer was Vidya Balan being thrown in front of the train. Nobody trusted us except Sujoy (Ghosh). 15 people told him to take it out. They were like, ‘If she dies, why will people come to the theatres?’ I was like, ‘Shut up yaar, bloody idiots.’
We Raees, and it played during the interval of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (which also we did). When the teaser came and Shah Rukh Khan walks out of the smoke, it was deafening, you couldn’t hear anything, people went mad. That was one of my proudest moments in my life.
Another was Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. It was releasing along with Ajay Devgn’s Shivaay. And they had put out a 3 min 40 sec trailer. Karan sir came to us and said, ‘How do you challenge this?’ I wanted us to come out with a 80 seconder with Ranbir singing the title song, some shots and nothing else. Karan sir disagreed with me initially. Shivaay had every action shot possible, so visually you couldn’t have beaten them. It’s only with the sound and the communication that we could’ve challenged that. Ranbir and Pritam backed me up and we went ahead with the 80 seconder. It went viral. You couldn’t beat that song. It was on everybody’s lips.
How important is sound in a trailer?
It’s the most important thing. When I did a masterclass recently, my emphasis was on sound. Visuals only communicate. The imagination comes from the sound that you pick up. If you don’t get your sound right, you are screwed. It gives it a rhythm.
The only trailer I might be crazy about is the latest Mission Impossible. It is the most flawless unit you will see. It has everything: from the setup, the intrigue, the beat cut — Hollywood still uses the beat cut but we stopped it because we wanted to be cool — where they are matching the feet stomping on the ground with the music.
When we did Dabangg, they had cut the trailer to the song “Smack My Bitch Up”. I thought Spanish guitars would do wonders. When I changed that, the entire product changed. I remember I was getting married that day and Sohail and Arbaaz (Khan) sir were sitting behind my mandap. The minute my pheras finished, they took me to their studio. My wife came to the studio at night to look for me. She was like, ‘Are you serious, you didn’t even touch my mother’s feet after the pheras were done’. Dabangg was the first one after my marriage.
Similarly, I cut Barfi to a specific kind of accordion-and-piano driven music and it made it what it is. Andhadhun has a thak-thak-thak percussion going through the trailer—it’s not melodic, but it creates intrigue. The Dev D trailer was built on that brass band sound from Emosanal Attyachar. Nobody will want to do these today.
What do you think is the problem in how trailers are done today?
They don’t want to experiment. That’s why it has become pedestrian. It has become templated: show the setup, then the issue, then the fight, or the resolution, show snippets of that, do a fast montage in the end and bring in the logo. There is no creative designing of the unit anymore. My last campaign was Andhadhun, where you could never guess the story.
What’s the reason behind the decline of artfully cut trailers?
Because I left doing trailers two years ago (Laughs). On a more serious note, it’s because the specialists are not taken seriously. It’s cost cutting. Everyone feels they can do it themselves. They will get any editor who will take Rs 50,000 and do it.
There was a time when I was offered almost a percentage of the opening weekend, apart from my remuneration. I didn’t accept it because I think it should come naturally and that only comes when you are free in your mind and you know you can take liberties. Now everyone’s got a hawk eye on you.
Also, a trailer can never live beyond the film. There are same kind of films being made today. So to set them apart is also a challenge.
Why did you stop making trailers after Andhadhun?
I am working on a war biopic to be directed by Sriram Raghavan. It is based on 2nd lieutenant Arun Khetrapal. He singlehandedly knocked out 8 tanks in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. He was martyred there. He was 21. He was from 17 Poona Horse, which is the most decorated cavalry in all of commonwealth.
I have an army connection. My father was a paratrooper. And all our generations, except us, who are making trailers, have been in the forces: Mausa, chacha, taya, dada, nana, everyone. I used to regret that neither me or my brother went in, but that dream is getting answered through the movie.
Do you see yourself making trailers again?
When theatres open, because that’s when you need me. I did the campaigning for a film by Abhishek Kapoor, who is a friend. I was recently given an offer to start doing trailers for a streaming platform exclusively. I am still considering it. Let’s see. Maybe I’ll step into it one last time.