One of the very first teasers that I encountered was promoting a Bengali film. Strips of cheap, pink paper covered prominent walls of the city — on them was printed, “Bhora buk na buk bhora bhalobasha?” They materialized into a soppy film about a small-breasted woman. When these teasers had first infected the walls of Calcutta, I remember overhearing fervent discussions about them. Teaser campaigns were not popular back then. Naturally, many were left wondering what secret message this cryptic one-liner was trying to convey.
It is hard to deny that there is, indeed, a certain pleasure — almost illicit — in playing this guessing game. The import of the message becomes irrelevant here. So does the substance of the film it is trying to promote. What becomes most important is solving the puzzle. A teaser campaign banks on this puzzle-solving frenzy. I couldn’t help reflecting on the actual purpose of the one-liner. Ideally, the puzzle is meant to make the buyer curious, and therefore help a seller to create a market for a product — be it a film or a new brand of fairness cream. What is significant is the method by which this curiosity is aroused. Rather than posing a challenge to one’s intellect, those pink strips were tugging at something else — a liking for corniness that is believed to be typical of the Bengali psyche. The teaser also contained a hint of prurience, in case the earlier ploy failed.
Here, the words ‘believed to be’ are significant. The makers of this particular film could not trust the intellect of its audience and took recourse to erotic hints and sentimentality. But did the audience react to the teasers as expected? Yes, there was the predictable curiosity. It can perhaps be said too that this curiosity pulled a sizeable part of the crowd. But then the question is, did the crowd feel shortchanged after watching the film?
Perhaps being taken for granted for too long has blunted the aspirations of the Bengali audience. The relationship between a product and its market can often be sensed from the quality of teasers circulated to lure the buyer. For example, the teaser for the third season of the BBC series, Sherlock, is just three random words. The makers trusted the audience’s intelligence in this case.
Do teasers determine the audience of a film, then? Or is it the other way round? Either way, teasers do speak volumes about the assumptions that the seller of a product makes about the consumer. And, at some level, those assumptions play a role in shaping the propensity and preferences of the consumer as well.
Teaser campaigns have been used in the West for a long time. But they were not so common in India even 10-15 years back. Teaser videos for Hindi films became popular after the advent of cable channels; such videos for Bengali films started being made even later. Later still came the pink strips of printed one-liners on city walls.
Did films not do enough business before teasers? There are instances in the history of cinema that suggest otherwise. Why is there the need to titillate the audience, then? Is it because this distraction can cloud rational perception and impede the possibility of an informed choice? The need to play games with the audience and the attempt to create a mass frenzy indicate a sense of uncertainty about the film itself. This expression of insecurity is so nakedly apparent in a consumerist culture that it is hard not to notice it.
Yet, myriads of teasers crowd the roadsides, walls, public toilets and shopping malls of our cities today. This is aside from the television screen, which is now constituted mostly of teasers of one kind or another (even headlines or ‘breaking news’ in some channels are packaged in a way so as to sound like teaser campaigns). Do these tantalizing hints really stir the mind anymore? Or have they lost their mystery now, and turned into accessories of urbanity?