It was possibly the rockiest phase in Priyanka Chopra’s career. Following reports of an alleged affair with a married actor in 2012, Chopra was relentlessly trailed by the paparazzi and journalists. Things took a turn for the worse when Chopra’s camp slammed star wives in an interview – a move that was bold and suicidal.
It was shortly after this episode that Rohini Iyer took charge of Chopra’s image. Iyer, who has worked with some of the biggest names in the Hindi film industry, got to work.
A series of phone calls and meetings followed to turn things around for the actress, who was also in the middle of a family crisis. Shortly after, Chopra made an appearance at a high profile party. All smiles and dressed in a gold number, she walked towards the flashbulbs clutching Iyer’s hand – a powerful statement about the trust she had placed in her crisis manager. Chopra is now what Iyer calls “Hollywood gold”, having moved on from Bollywood scandals to professional respect in Hollywood.
“She has been one of the most hardworking persons I have known,” Iyer said about Chopra. “She is also extremely resilient and never, ever gives up.”
Another endorsement of Iyer’s fire-fighting skills came from Katrina Kaif, who recently posted on her social media page, “So happy to hear Rohini Iyer’s a part of Sudha Menon’s Devi,Diva or She-Devil. For every woman who believes she can’t , Rohini’s story and the others’ as well, will make you believe otherwise!” Iyer is one of 20 female professionals who feature in Menon’s book. Iyer shares space with Olympian MC Mary Kom, entrepreneur Nisaba Godrej, food writer Karen Anand and investment banker Manisha Girotra, among others.
Iyer has come a long way since her early showbiz days. The client list of her company, Raindrop Media, includes prominent actors, actresses and filmmakers, including Kareena Kapoor, Vidya Balan, Bipasha Basu, John Abraham, Shahid Kapur, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Farah Khan, Aanand L Rai and Ekta Kapoor.
“At thirty-five, Rohini Iyer is living her dream, rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential and successful people in the film business. In fact, to most outsiders, her almost fairy-tale life could well inspire a film.”
Iyer, a college dropout, started working at the age of 16 as a journalist with the film magazine G. An only child, the 35-year-old singleton lives what she describes as a charmed life in the Mumbai suburb Bandra. “I am spoilt,” she said, recounting how pampered she is at home, and how her mother packs cartons of pocket-sized water bottles in her car since she is always on the move.
“I have learnt a lot from the people I have worked with,” Iyer said during a conversation at one of the Indigo restaurants in Mumbai. Iyer looked at home at the restaurant frequented by the glamorous and famous, placing an order for her “usual” and referring to the chef by his first name.
“I remember when a telecom giant featured me in a power list alongside Farah Khan – I called her up to share my gratitude and delight,” Iyer said. “I have learnt so much from her, from Ekta about being passionate and ambitious, from Priyanka... from each and every person I have worked with. I do not want to name just a few, because they have all played an important part in shaping me as a professional and a person.”
Iyer shifted gears with Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na in 2004. “When I started off as a film journalist, I was not so much into journalism as I was into the people I watched on the screen and met in person,” she explained. “I used to spend a lot of time on the sets, hanging out with the filmmakers and the stars, and began to understand their point of view as well.”
Iyer developed what she called “empathy”, and there came a point when she realised that she could no longer be friends with the people she was supposed to write about objectively. “I began to view them as human, rather than celebrities, and I decided I could not be a journalist anymore,” she said.
Two years before Iyer’s career move, Ek Chhoti Si Love Story was released. Shashilal Nair’s film tackled a teenager’s obsession for his neighbour, played by Manisha Koirala. The actress gave several interviews claiming that a few scenes featuring partial nudity did not feature her, but a body double.
As a journalist, Iyer could see what was right and wrong with the story. “Everyone was talking about how the film had excellent publicity¸ but in reality it was only about petty and contrived controversies with Manisha Koirala, the lead actor, going ballistic at every stage,” Iyer recalled. “I told myself, this is not how things should be done.”
Things were far simpler when she started out as a publicist. There were fewer publications and no social media, and movie stars were willing to devote more time to journalists. Up until the 1990s, a leading star had one secretary who was the point of contact with the outside world. Now, there are personal managers, publicists attached to new releases and representatives of talent management agencies. There is a plethora of print, television and digital publications; stars are hurtling between films, red carpet appearances and endorsements; publicity agencies like Raindrop Media and close rival Spice share responsibilities with talent management companies such as CAA-Kwan and Bling.
“It is not right to blame journalists or the stars,” Iyer observed. “Everyone is too busy these days. I can tell you that every star is more than happy to have a meaningful interaction with someone who is willing to listen, discuss, and be respectful.”
Bollywood publicity has moved far beyond fixing interviews before a film’s release. “PR is only one part of what we do,” Iyer said. “Promoting a film is also another aspect of our work.” This includes sitting in on script narrations, discussions on personal grooming and styling, and decisions on brand endorsements.
Iyer often describes herself as a “Media Director” in film credits – a claim that seems pompous but is in keeping with the wide-ranging nature of her work. “We are not directing the media,” Iyer said. “We are only helping the filmmaker and his cast and crew to deal with all aspects of the media – not just print. It also involves brand tie-ups, finding the right script and dealing with all aspects of marketing and promotions.”
Raindrop Media employs 50 professionals, many of whom are attached to clients. Iyer has often worked with rival stars, and is amused when reporters point out this aspect. “When you work with virtually everyone in the industry, you end up working with rivals as well, but it only shows how far we have come as professionals,” she said.
Bollywood may have become more sophisticated in its media handling, but some of Iyer’s assignments are strictly garden variety. She has arranged unofficial meetings between anxious filmmakers and hostile journalists, forcing them to call a truce on occasion. Iyer can be combative and professional at the same time, rushing into the maelstrom at any hour of the day.
There was the time when she convinced an actress to swallow her pride and call up a journalist to refute claims of a lip job.
In 2012, Iyer had to quell the storm that gathered after reports that Shah Rukh Khan had slapped filmmaker Shirish Kunder, who is married to Farah Khan, at a nightclub. Iyer managed to deflect the attention from Kunder, and that is how it has been ever since.
Iyer has had less success with reshaping Kangana Ranaut’s screen persona between the successes of Tanu Weds Manu in 2011 and Queen (2014) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). She had to ensure that the controversial actress was back on the radar for the media that seemed to have lost interest in her – which is far more dangerous for a celebrity than negative reports. Iyer’s association with Ranaut did not last long, and it ended on a rare discordant note, with the actress threatening legal action against Iyer’s team for allegedly planting negative stories about her in the media.
Iyer refuses to talk about the incident, pointing out that most of her other associations have lasted much longer. “I am careful about not letting my personal equations get in the way of my professional commitments, but I am friends with all the people I work with,” she said. “When you work with personalities who are so visible and influential, there will be a fire every day. You take up the job knowing that anything could turn into a crisis. In fact, the first words I utter when I wake up in the morning are: “Where is the fire?’”
The celebrity management scene is more crowded than before – there are numerous smaller players, and some producers and stars prefer subtlety to Iyer’s homegrown approach. But Iyer has the first-mover advantage. She has improvised along the way and learnt from her mistakes and the people she worked with.
“I have no godfathers, I come from a very regular family, and I have made it on my own,” she said, echoing the words of some of her most famous clients.