The industry seems to be asking the audience, “How’s the josh?” as it is set to unleash not one, not two, but three films this Diwali. This is a first since 2011. 2013 to 2015 and 2018 all had solo releases, while the remaining years had “competitive rivalry” between two big-ticket releases.
This year, Housefull 4, Saand Ki Aankh and Made In China will hit the screens. So how will the math go? But first, a trip down memory lane to find out what did happen when multiple films came at festival time in the past.
The Diwali story
In 2002, for the first time, four films came in during Diwali week: Leela, Jeena Sirf Merre Liye, Annarth and Waah!…Tera Kya Kehna. The first, a social top-lined by Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia, did moderate business. The remaining three were non-starters, and were respectively, a romantic entertainer, an action potboiler and a comedy.
In 2003, we had Pinjar, Ssshhhh…, Raja Bhaiya, Kaagaar and Inteha—again all diverse genres. This time, none worked. However, things changed for the better in 2004, when Aitraaz (the Abbas-Mustan thriller featuring Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, for whom it was her springboard to big-time) did well, and Veer-Zaara from Yash Chopra was decently received here but and huge overseas.
The third hit was India’s first colorized film, the 1960 classic Mughal-E-Azam, which did very well by standards of the budget needed to rework it technologically, and the only casualty was the ineptly-made Ram Gopal Varma indulgence, Naach.
2005 saw a clash between Garam Masala (a Priyadarshan comedy), Kyon Ki.,. (a serious film from the same director) and the David Dhawan naughty exercise Shaadi No. 1. The audience sent in a clear signal: they did not want depressing fare during festival season and they wanted good comedy. Thus, only Garam Masala worked!
There were two more examples of so-called ‘triangular competition’: in 2009, All The Best, Blue and Main Aur Mrs Khanna released. The first did average business and later grew into a cult comedy on merit, Blue opened well but became a disaster, and the third did not even take off! In 2011, Ra.One proved a downer after a good opening, Tell Me O Kkhuda (touted as the comeback of Esha Deol) was a washout and the tepid dark horse was the Himesh Reshammiya comedy, Damadamm!, which for its scale, did average business. But, theoretically, only Ra.One was a “biggie”. So what will 2019’s Diwali be like, with a “biggie” (Housefull 4) and two small movies “pitted” against it.
How 2019 is different
Film exhibitor Akshaye Rathi succinctly offers a contradictory view. “What is a “biggie” today? Budgets and cast do not mean a biggie today. The script and the director make a film, and its performance makes it a biggie! If a Saand Ki Aankh, which is being very smartly marketed, becomes big even from the second week on the content it is offering, it will be called a biggie as well! The same holds for Made In China, if it works.”
The three-day business module that dominates today’s movie culture can have modifications, as witnessed in recent years with many films that grew slowly, like Chhichhore or even The Tashkent Files. “Audiences have changed dramatically over the last five years. There are some films this year whose success even I cannot fathom, but they are few. So, after Housefull 4 makes a mark and settles down on its merit, the other two films can take over.”
That said, he agrees on the general principle that three diverse films, if they resonate with the audience, can find their own space on a single festival date. He makes the point that the three releases this year are so divergent that “99 percent of those who want to watch Housefull 4 may not want to watch a Saand Ki Aankh and vice-versa.” His experience across multiple theatres tells him that if there is a wish to watch any movie, thanks to either the vibe they get or word-of-mouth, people will find a way to do so. “Nothing then will stop them from catching up with a film, not even a tsunami!” he says. And that is why he does not agree with the perception that smaller films will benefit only if or when a big film flops.
He agrees that Housefull 4 will have the maximum play with prime screens and the most number of prime time shows as well, but that is a natural consequence as the film is driven by a superstar, a popular franchise behind it and a big-ticket producer.
Trade analyst Vinod Mirani, however, takes the conservative view that so many films should not come together. “As it is, business will not be good on actual Diwali days when festivities are there. Diwali is thus an overrated box-office date,” he says. And Rathi concurs, “People will watch a good movie any time! Bahubali 2—The Conclusion released during Ramzan and when examinations too were on. It is still the highest-ever grossing film in its Hindi version alone!”
Both agree that ultimately it is about the content, but Rathi stresses that superstars can determine receptivity. “It is clear that when a bad film with a superstar does more than 100 crore business, it does so despite the script!” he says. “But when a younger star’s films do well, like a Chhichhore or a Dreamgirl, it is because of the script! Though Ayushmann Khurrana is making great choices so far, he and other actors cannot even begin to be classified anywhere in the league of the three Khans, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn or Hrithik Roshan.”
Economics, release patterns (even in 2011, multiplexes were not as dominant as they are now) and audience engagement (as influenced majorly even by present ticket-rates and their inflation in the first few days) all determine business in showbiz. On festive occasions, when other expenses and activities take center stage, family spends take on another dimension.
So let us wait and watch if this Diwali emerges as a solid blast (as the buzz for Housefull 4 and reports of Saand Ki Aankh seem to indicate) or like a wet firecracker.