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Published in: Verve Magazine, Musings, June 2010

The woman behind or rather in front of the powerful Somebody, is a true gatekeeper: she can smile and grant you permission to interface with Somebody, or unleash the claws as you scramble to find cheese for your daily bread and butter. In the Tom & Jerry-esque melee, Sitanshi Talati-Parikh circumspectly lets a few cats out of the bag

You’d think you would be up against brawny armed guards that patrol the corridors of their high-profile clients, but you’d be surprised to discover that it takes but a wee woman to muscle her way into the upper echelons of high profile relations and become what we fondly call the ‘gateway’ to the terribly famous. These women can vary in designation from PR, personal assistants, secretaries, girl Fridays, media managers, simply managers…you name it and you will find that they exist. What’s interesting is the relationship quotient that exists between these people (gatekeepers or GKs and the Famous Person or FP), with whom the latter spend a good amount of their time – liaisoning, tantrum-throwing, exhibiting their inner idiosyncrasies and unflappable spirit. One of the biggest GKs of the movie industry is possibly Farzana, Rekha’s personal assistant of many years, without whose approval no one can get remotely near the reclusive actress.

You would imagine that the main idea of having this sort of a liaison officer is to make the FP look good – to steer FP’s eccentricities and indiscretions away from the public eye, and to keep them ‘clean’ and ‘lusted after’ as particularly perfect role models. While some GKs manage to do so quite effectively, ensuring that through major string-pulling certain delicious facts are never unearthed and exposed, others in fact, choose to use their shield to create an aura of star presence.

A glittering mirage is not always the aim, though. Actress Priyanka Chopra doesn’t come across as a diva or a star, but rather (in part due to her own personality) as a friendly, hard-working girl-next-door. Natasha Pal, chief operating officer, Vitcom Consulting, is responsible for creating a well-rounded strong brand identity for Chopra which extends to the Internet as well.

But if we go back to those with star presence, what exactly are we talking about? Busy, tut-tut, of course they are. Calendars are never free, they are always either on shoot or constantly travelling or ‘busy’ with other alarmingly important activities. Benefit of doubt given, until you read a gossip rag talking about how they are vacationing and turning down offers because they are ‘waiting for the right opportunity’. This is the lot of the GK of an FP who may not be a public favourite at the moment, but must be made to appear to be!

Entourage? Check. I mean no self-respecting FP will travel without his/her motley crew of spot boy, bodyguard, bag holder, dog walker, coffee maker, hairdresser, make-up artist, mobile-holder, companion, GK/manager(s), chauffeur and ego-panderer. But often we discover that it may not be the FP who believes in crowd-sourcing as accruement of power but actually their GKs who encourage the general view that (a) It’s best to squeeze out the favours one can (b) By throwing one’s weight about one’s star presence increases even more, in fact it solidifies it (c) What’s the point of being an FP if you don’t act like it? The others all do!

At one time, FP’s mummy would say ‘baby ke liye lassi laao’, now the GK informs you ahead of time that FP will require such-and-such items, and that the young and hearty FP cannot under any circumstances climb a flight of stairs for a shoot, or walk ten seconds under the sun (despite the FP being a person known for her athletic prowess) – therefore the most expensive and convenient locations and rooms must be chosen or she will not turn up.

Not to forget that the staff – such as a chauffeur or spot boy – will often have their own letterheads with which they invoice the third party, because if an FP is expected to come to a shoot or interview, her staff must be paid for. So very often, the FP comes for about half an hour, and her staff is paid by the third party an approximate month’s salary. With an FP going regularly on shoots and interviews (supply and demand being such), it makes you wonder if the FP takes a cut from the staff’s earnings! Of course, the GKs, hairdressers and make-up artists when travelling with the FP will want to travel with the FP – i.e. business or first class. The tab, once again, is picked up by the third party. Pal feels that not all clients have insane demands. “This is actually more an archaic myth than a present-day reality. The evaluation of a client’s requirement is subjective really – what is a necessity could be seen as an undue demand.”

While the relationship between an FP and a GK is mutually beneficial, you can never be certain who the real diva is in the relationship. Is it the FP who believes in throwing his/her weight around, or is it the GK who insists on doing it this way? Maybe the FP – getting filtered information through the GK – is quite unaware of what the GK is up to and how he/she is being represented. And maybe, the GK is the innocent victim of the FPs demands, often feeling foolish having to represent these to the outside world as diplomatically as possible.

Archana Sadanand, proprietor of Imagesmiths, who ably handles high-profile clients like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Imran Khan and top production houses, admits that it is not always an easy road for a PR person: juggling the time constraints of an FP as well as the requirements of the media. “At times it can get sticky: a failed film or a bogie in an interview that needs firefighting. At other times a journo rubs a maker or a star up the wrong way. We have to find ways to mend the situation; some of these moments can be hilarious. It’s like being in cage with a tiger and hoping he won’t have you for dinner, but that’s the fun of it!”

GKs are often way busier than the FP – many who are affiliated to a professional organisation are not dedicated to one FP alone, often manage multiple FPs in one shot. Try calling a GK…actually rephrase that to try ever getting in touch with a GK. It is practically impossible, unless they believe you are someone worth talking to, or have something valuable to offer them in return. And at any point of time, if you have taken the effort to massage their ego, or made their FP happy, you may find yourself welcome with open arms (hyperbole). And lo and behold! If you ever make the mistake of having a personal equation with their FP – and manage to make inroads in the future without the GK as an intermediary, you will soon discover the strange truth in the wise words ‘…a woman scorned….’ You may never get through the GK again, you may find the GK publicly and unabashedly admonishing their FP for ever allowing a friendship to develop, and you may find that GK’s entire remaining client list banned from your access.

Don’t for a moment imagine that the FP controls the strings of this equation. There is no one stronger than the aide of a FP, as you will soon reluctantly come to realise. FPs who are afraid of being alone on travels, have begun to use their GK or their hair/make-up artist as the chaperone that Mummy once used to be, and you will find them even going to the extent of sharing a room with the person for companionship, as evidenced by a minor actress and her hair-dresser. Where at one point of time, you couldn’t get past a top businessman’s secretary until she wanted to let you through, or when the way into an FP’s heart was through that of her Mummy’s (Luck By Chance ably proved that), you find more and more that now you have to break through the tough shield of a GK.

Natasha Pal has often been considered Chopra’s girl Friday – she’s developed a strong personal equation with the actress. “In most situations, friendships do develop. But, there is always a line that we draw between the job that we have to do and the friendship that has developed. In order for us to be fully effective we also have to be brutally honest and in all professional situations the friendship is relegated to after working hours.”

Amitabh Bachchan’s long-time secretary, Rosie is the model of efficiency. Once a request has been received by her, you don’t need to go through the torturous chase of follow-ups. A legit query will always be handled and she will respond promptly.

However, there are those – Who Cannot Be Named – who have taken their role as a gatekeeper much too seriously. Possibly the power has gone to their head a bit, leading to the detriment of their own standing and that of their FP. Unfortunately for all, the demand for FPs far outweighs the supply, so we are forced to continue to play the cat-and-mouse game as long as divas are around and people remain interested in reading about them.