Despite the lack of marquee stars, item songs and a fat marketing budget, Alankrita Shrivastava’s indie movie Lipstick Under My Burkha continues to have a steady run at the box office. Against a landing cost of Rs 6.5 crores, the July 27 release film has earned a healthy Rs 11.9 crores from 400 screens at the end of its second weekend.

A buzz around the drama about the intersecting lives of four women in Bhopal began to grow after it won the Oxfam award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2016. Lipstick Under My Burkha achieved serious notoriety after the Central Board of Film Certification refused to issue a certificate, reasoning that it is “lady oriented”, among other things.

Public opinion soon swayed in favour of the film. Subsequently, Lipstick Under My Burkha’s marketing engine found a new lease of life and charged at full throttle as the film was cleared for release.

Film publicist Parull Gossain, who oversaw the marketing of Lipstick Under My Burkha, credits the “obnoxious” letter by the censor board as a big reason for the film’s success. “A few days after the film was applauded at the Mumbai Film Festival, we got the letter from the CBFC,” Gossain said, “Once we made it public, everything started to take off from there.”

The film fraternity jumped in to support the film. Farhan Akhtar, Vishal Bhardwaj and CBFC member Ashoke Pandit condemned the censor board’s refusal to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha. The rest, Gossain said, was handled by the news media. “We got a lot of support from news channels, television, print and online. We did not have to push anybody. Feminist or not, people joined the movement,” she said.

But it is not every day that a small film like Lipstick Under My Burkha attracts controversy and thus, eyeballs. For this success story, there are several other indies that fly under the radar despite critical acclaim. The year 2017 has seen several low-budget releases, such as Irada, Anaarkali of Aarah, Poorna, Mukti Bhawan, A Death in the Gunj and G Kutta Se, but few of them have been able to translate good storylines into box office buzz. Independent films seldom have substantial budgets, and marketing them is difficult “unless something interesting catches the people’s attention”, Gossain pointed out.

For Lipstick Under My Burkha, Balaji Motion Pictures come into the picture after the controversy erupted. The Ekta Kapoor-led company took over the publicity. A brand new poster emerged, in which a middle finger wielded a lipstick, and a hashtag campaign called #LipstickRebellion was launched.

Unlike Shrivastava’s film, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped had a smooth film certification process. And yet, the Phantom Films production, starring Rajkummar Rao as a character trapped in an apartment, has been profitable. “In fact, it was the fastest among all our films to recover money,” said Ranjan Singh, the company’s marketing head.

At the end of its theatrical run, Trapped, which cost its makers Rs 5.5 crores, had earned Rs 3.25 crores from 300-odd screens. The rest was recouped from selling satellite and internet rights.

For Trapped, Singh focused on selling the film’s concept to its target audience. “Vikram had his own standing after Udaan and Lootera,” Singh said, “Rajkummar had his own fanbase. So we knew a certain set of the audience would definitely watch the film and we began by reaching out to them.”

Like Lipstick Under My Burkha, the marketing campaign for Trapped too revolved around utilising the internet rather than conventional avenues such as television. “TV spots are 10-15 seconds long and they come between breaks,” Singh said, “No one pays attention. So we stuck to making the film visible online on Facebook, Twitter, etc.”

The first trailer ramped up curiosity about the movie’s plot. Why, for instance, doesn’t Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) charge his mobile phone?

Online content heroes such as The Viral Fever and Jose Covaco stepped in to publicise Trapped with tie-in content of their own.

After Trapped was released on March 17 and it got a good response from critics and audiences, Singh realised that they had used every possible angle possible to market the film. “By now, everyone knew the content and most were aware of how the film ended,” Singh said, “But the second week is crucial for small films like these.” A few days after the release, its makers released the promotional video Trap Rap, which consisted of footage from the film edited to a rap song.

Trap Rap.

Gossain and Singh agree that the two crucial elements necessary for marketing an indie film are sticking to the basic concept and cashing in on positive feedback generated at film festivals. While Lipstick Under My Burkha had won 11 awards before its release, Trapped got good reviews after its premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival.

“For example, with Masaan, we knew that its Cannes award win was the selling point,” Singh said about Neeraj Ghaywan’s movie, which he also worked on. “This was a film that had made India proud so we began to amplify that angle.” A new Indian trailer for Masaan was cut, and multiple screenings were organised to strengthen word of mouth publicity.

Pre-release screenings help indies, but what if nobody shows up at the screening? This is what happened with Rahul Dahiya’s film G Kutta Se, on which Gossain had worked. Dahiya’s debut was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015 and was released on June 16, 2017.

“We simply could not get anyone to watch it,” Gossain said, “We kept inviting journalists, we sent them Vimeo links, they would say that they are going to watch it. But no one did.” Yet, the film ended up being one of the most well-reviewed of the year after its release.

G Kutta Se.