Following the glorious legacy of our nation’s most famous warship, the brand new Made-in-India aircraft carrier Vikrant has set sail for sea trials.
The first vessel by the same name, played a key role in helping India win the 1971 war against Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. The legacy of Vikrant might have many tales, but there is one little story — my career story — which started on the flight deck of the then decommissioned aircraft carrier INS Vikrant two-and-a-half decades ago. A different kind of story.
The different kind of story
It was 1997. Having spent about a decade in journalism, I had shifted to Mumbai two years ago. After a stupendous innings on the Business and Magazine desks in a newspaper, I had spent a few months as the Chief Sub-Editor of the leading gossip magazine Cine Blitz, and freelanced for publications like The Indian Express, Screen, Blitz, Showtime and The Asian Age. In a little over a decade, I’d seen the best of both worlds in the press — hardcore mainstream media, as well as sensational yellow journalism.
In a little over a decade, I’d seen the best of both worlds in the press — hardcore mainstream media, as well as sensational yellow journalism.
During my journalism days, I had interacted with a Bollywood PR who used to tom-tom about his big remuneration. I began to wonder if I could earn the same kind of monies by shifting gears from journalism to PR.
So I had begun accepting PR assignments for some upcoming actors. But it was all hush hush. In the 90s, doing PR along with journalism was considered to be highly unethical, but I still needed more confidence before I could take a full-fledged plunge into public relations.
Destiny brings new challenges
And then it happened, as if it was my destiny. An event management agency approached me, explaining that they were in an SOS situation and inquiring if I could save them. The PR agency they had hired to handle a mega event coming up in a week, had backed out at the last minute. Someone had recommended my name, and they checked.
But when they told me what the event was, I was zapped. It was a naval awards night called Fling ’97 to take place on the flight deck of the legendary Majestic-class 19,500-tonne warship INS Vikrant, which had got decommissioned that year itself. Actors Anil Kapoor and Govinda were going to be there to give away awards to achievers in the Indian Navy, while singer Raageshwari was going to perform her hit pop song Duniya.
Leap of faith
‘You know that I’m a journalist, not an accomplished PR, right?,’ I said. I told them about the personal PR assignments I handled on the side, but pointed out that they were hardly on the scale of a full-on live event, that too of the Indian Navy.
The agency asked me if I knew enough mainstream photographers and film journalists and whether I was aware of what a PR’s duties are. They asked me if I could invite all my journalist friends and photographers and whether they would turn up. Whether I would be able to handle them at the event. They also asked if I could prepare a Press Kit for the event and a few follow-up press releases after it. I told them that with my media contacts and experience as a journalist, all this was not difficult for me. So they said they would like to go ahead with me as the publicist for the event.
They were in a desperate situation I guess, and told me to just go for it and do my best. We discussed my remuneration and I felt they were paying me quite well, in spite of me being a novice in PR.
The only thing they knew for sure was that they could trust my journalistic experience. I knew well that it was my strongest asset — my communication abilities being the other. But mind you, those were the days of landlines and pagers. Mobiles were yet to become commonplace, and only celebrities had them.
I felt like a pygmy
Soon the evening arrived. It was a cool breezy one in South Mumbai. I had never been on a ship before, let alone a naval warship. Even the movie Titanic had not been released by then (it came out six months later), and I had nothing to compare that experience with.
When I reached the location at the docks at Cuffe Parade, I just stood there for five minutes staring at the magnanimity of INS Vikrant. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was mammoth. Standing before it, I felt like a pygmy. And yet, I began the first endeavour of my PR career that evening.
It was mammoth. Standing before it, I felt like a pygmy. And yet, I began the first endeavour of my PR career that evening.
After the initial shock and awe feeling, I proceeded to do the job I was hired for. I was given a bulky-looking walkie-talkie by Commander Virendra Singh Marya, who was on the event organising team there. (Commander Marya later became a Captain and then after a few years, took premature retirement in 2008, to pursue his passion of writing and producing authentic military-based films).
He showed me a button to press while talking on the walkie-talkie and guided me to keep the instrument on a particular frequency. “Most importantly, don’t forget to say ‘over’ after you finish a sentence, otherwise we may not know you are done with it,” he said. “Got it?” he asked and I nodded, not knowing how well I’d do.
Victory loves preparation
But one thing I knew I’d done pretty well. I’d prepared great Press Kits and made sure I’d invited all my editor and top journalist and photographer friends. I’d even followed up with each and every one of them and taken confirmations. I knew I could count on them and so I was sure about the media turnout. And I was not disappointed either.
PR clients; like children to take care of
As the event began, I made sure I took great care of my media friends. That is the first time I felt as if the media was my extended family and the clients; like children whom I had to take care of. A sense of huge responsibility took over.
That is the first time I felt as if the media was my extended family and the clients; like children whom I had to take care of.
Everything was going well, the media handling, Raageshwari’s performance, Anil Kapoor’s entry… everything… until I was told on the walkie-talkie that Govinda had just arrived at the parking lot and would embark the ship anytime. I had mentioned it to Commander Marya earlier that Chi Chi (as Govinda was fondly called) knew me personally. So the Commander asked me if I could go down and receive him. I gladly agreed.
I went and received him and we were escorted back to the flight deck where the event was taking place. Now this gave me confidence about the ship and I thought let me go down again to receive some media guys who were coming late. And that’s where I misjudged.
Because though I didn’t have any problem going down, while trying to get back to the flight deck, I took a wrong entrance on the ship. What followed is something I will never forget.
Inside the belly of INS Vikrant
I got lost. Yes, I got lost on INS Vikrant. I was somewhere on the lower deck. Inside the ship. All alone. The ship was quite well lit from inside. Clean, spick and span. But on that magnificent huge huge huge machine, I was still lost. I just couldn’t find any way to reach the decks above.
Initially I said to myself, ‘Cmon Dale, it’s just a ship. You’ll find your way out.’ But one section and compartment led to another and as I walked further, the more confused I got. I reached a point when I realised that even if I turned back, I wasn’t sure if I’d find my way out. Apparently, there were 18 decks including 5 decks above the flight deck on INS Vikrant.
There was a dining section, some gadgetry type of levers in one of the compartments, and even a room which looked like a library. But I couldn’t find a single point which I was sure could lead me to a higher deck. It was completely silent inside. Not a sound from the event on top. Almost 10-12 minutes had passed with me somewhere inside the belly of this majestic vessel, and now I was beginning to feel nervous.
It was completely silent inside. Not a sound from the event on top. Almost 10-12 minutes had passed with me somewhere inside the belly of this majestic vessel, and now I was beginning to feel nervous.
Commander to the rescue
Going from one section to the other, trying to find a way out, my heart started beating faster. And then all of a sudden I was jolted out of silence by a crackling sound. It was from the walkie-talkie in my hand. I had completely forgotten about it. I quickly fiddled with it and realised I could ask for help. The first two times, I got no response. Then came Commander Marya’s voice. He asked me something about my exact whereabouts and what I could see around in the compartments, and reminded me to say ‘over’ at the end of my sentences. I quickly repeated my sentence and said ‘over’.
Listening to messages on the frequency, there were other people from the Navy as well as from the event management agency which had hired me. I was embarrassed to say I was lost on the ship. But I had to. At least, now I knew that they knew that I was lost and needed help. Finally, I was guided by someone on the walkie-talkie and managed to find my way to the next deck and then to the flight deck.
After a few minutes, I had to go down once more as a photographer faced some issue and insisted I meet him near the parking lot below. So I disembarked once again. When done with the photographer, I made sure I took the correct turn at the alleyway while entering the ship to go back to the flight deck. This time I was super confident. And I knew, just in case something goes wrong, I had my secret weapon — that effective walkie-talkie.
I smiled with full-on confidence as I walked in from the lower deck. I took all the right turns on the alleyways, and then I was super angry. Angry at myself. How could I? I mean, how was it possible? Was I like duh? Was this really happening to me? I was lost… AGAIN.
I took all the right turns on the alleyways, and then I was super angry. Angry at myself. How could I? I mean, how was it possible? Was I like duh? Was this really happening to me?
When I said that on the walkie-talkie, all those guys took turns to have a laugh and pass smart alec comments. And some of them didn’t even bother to say ‘over’.
Footnote: Next morning every big newspaper, including The Times of India, The Indian Express and Mid-Day carried the news of the event. Most of them on Page 1. Now I knew for sure that I could do PR and do it super successfully. I sent out the first press release of the event that day, with my PR agency officially launched with a name, logo and a letterhead.
The client — the event management agency — who had hired me was extremely happy with my work. I earned an amount from them in a week, which I used to normally make as a journalist in a month, and this was only the beginning. I also realised that journalism is a profession, whereas PR is a business.
I earned an amount from them in a week, which I used to normally make as a journalist in a month, and this was only the beginning. I also realised that journalism is a profession, whereas PR is a business.
In the next few days, I announced that I was moving from journalism and got full-fledged into Bollywood PR. The breeze from the flight deck of INS Vikrant had taken its course. I now knew where it was going and I was like an eagle navigating it, without the fear of getting lost. Over.