How the Bollywood Diwali release lost its shine
Maratha Mandir, located in the heart of Mumbai, is well past its prime. Yet there is a sense of pride in the damp air in its premises. On a day when it’s raining heavily, the cinema hall is empty but the chandeliers are lit. With its cavernous interiors, grand staircase and a smell you only seem to find in old, single-screen theatres, it feels like a place frozen in time. The venue has become famous because Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), has been playing there since its release in October 1995. Jagjivan Maru, 67, the chief projectionist, remembers the opening day. While the audience danced in the aisles to Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna, the air outdoors was filled with the smoke of firecrackers. It was Diwali.
I visited Maratha Mandir last month. Even the trailer of Golmaal Again!!!, which releases this Diwali, wasn’t out. The Rohit Shetty film starring Ajay Devgn, Parineeti Chopra and Tabu will release along with Advait Chandan’s Secret Superstar, which features 16-year-old Zaira Wasim, the actor who played one of Aamir Khan’s daughters in Dangal. There is a cameo by Khan, who has produced the film. Last year’s Diwali releases—Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Devgn’s Shivaay—looked big on paper but struggled at the box office. “We were expecting a cumulative Rs400 crore but together they couldn’t even reach the Rs200 crore mark,” says Akshaye Rathi, a film exhibitor and distributor. Salman Khan’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) and Shah Rukh Khan’s Happy New Year (2014) had great openings on Diwali, but only the former finds a place (ninth) in the current Box Office India list of top 10 grossing Indian movies in the past two decades.
The Bollywood Diwali release isn’t quite what it used to be. Rewind to 2007, when you had one of the most exciting box-office face-offs in Hindi film history. Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, which had both Shah Rukh Khan and the debutante Deepika Padukone in double roles and a galaxy of other stars in guest appearances, was pitted against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, the debut film of Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor. Further back, 2000 saw the epic clash between Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission Kashmir. The latter rode the wave of hysteria surrounding a new superstar, Hrithik Roshan, whom the media was quick to pitch as a rival to Shah Rukh Khan. There was a different kind of clash in Mohabbatein, with Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, together for the first time, presenting a teacher-principal rivalry.
“I remember both clearly: the Mission Kashmir one because it was Vinod’s film and I was in the front seat,” says film critic Anupama Chopra, the director’s wife. “But the time the rivalry was felt the most was during Om Shanti Om and Saawariya. I remember reading interviews where SRK said he is going to completely destroy Saawariya.” And he did.
In the past few years, however, the most explosive fights at the box office have taken place on other dates. On the Republic Day weekend this year, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan faced each other after a 17-year gap, with Raees and Kaabil, respectively. Bhansali got his revenge when Bajirao Mastani, starring Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra, beat Dilwale, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, in the week leading up to Christmas in 2015—although Dilwale’s lifetime earnings are more, thanks to Khan’s enduring popularity in the overseas market.
Save the Date
Diwali, in comparison, has appeared lacklustre, both in terms of film hits and performances—thanda, as they say in Hindi film-trade parlance. There has been a lot more discussion, chatter and hype around movies that have come out on Eid, Christmas, Republic Day and Independence Day. Salman Khan has made an event out of every Eid for his fans, coming out with at least one film on the day every year.
“Eid has definitely become the No.1 slot, overtaking Diwali,” says Brijesh Tandon, a film distributor who operates primarily in the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh circuit. “It has happened ever since Salman’s Dabangg came out in 2010.”
Since 2007, six of the seven films with Aamir Khan in the lead (other than Talaash in 2012) have released during Christmas week: Taare Zameen Par (2007), Ghajini (2008), 3 Idiots (2009), Dhoom: 3 (2013), PK (2014) and Dangal (2016). The last two are the third- and second-highest-grossing Indian films of all time, respectively. Most films of Akshay Kumar, the purveyor of patriotism lite—Baby (2015), Airlift (2016), Rustom (2016), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017)—over the past few years, have been releasing around Republic Day or Independence Day. Kumar’s next film, 2.0, in which he plays the villain opposite Rajinikanth, is scheduled for a 25 January release.
The emergence of national holidays such as Eid, Christmas, Republic Day and Independence Day as big movie-release dates is a relatively new phenomenon. “Over the last seven-eight years, everybody has realized that holidays will give an upsurge of Rs10-15 crore business. Nobody wants to let go of the lure of additional profit,” says Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media, a media consulting firm. “Today, an average film earns 70% of its business in the first week.” Public holidays such as Holi, earlier not considered for movie releases since it falls around the same time as school exams, are being added to that list. Last week, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions announced on Twitter that the Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari would be released on the Holi weekend in 2019. Their Badrinath Ki Dulhania, which was released in the same slot earlier this year, was a hit.
A Yash Chopra tradition
Diwali, trade analysts concede, still remains one of the more attractive dates—the Aamir Khan-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Thugs Of Hindostan will release on Diwali next year. But it’s no longer the year’s only marquee date. “Bigger and better movies have come out on other dates,” says Shailesh Kapoor.
How did it become Bollywood’s traditional festive date in the first place? Shah Rukh Khan is the name that comes to mind when we think of a Diwali release. And, indeed, blockbusters such as DDLJ, Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), which established him as the “king of romance”, were Diwali releases. But Khan has had releases at other times of the year as well.
The Bollywood Diwali release is rather more solidly rooted in the Yash Chopra films of the 1990s. Starting with Lamhe (1991), almost every major Chopra production, such as Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Veer-Zaara (2004)—even those which were directed by his son, Aditya, and produced by him, such as DDLJ and Mohabbatein—were Diwali releases. With their aspirational, larger-than-life stories with one foot in tradition and another in a foreign location, Chopra’s brand of chiffon-and-champagne Hindi cinema seemed perfect for the pro-spending, family-friendly spirit of Diwali—it’s interesting to note that the only two exceptions were Darr (1993), with a darker theme, and Parampara (1993), an action film. It shows that a certain kind of Chopra film was meant for a Diwali release.
Over the years, this trend was followed by film-makers such as Sooraj Barjatya (Hum Saath-Saath Hain in 1999, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo), Karan Johar (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) and Farah Khan (Om Shanti Om, Happy New Year), the last two having been groomed in the Chopra school of film-making.
Anupama Chopra helps put it in perspective. “Yash Raj Films had their lowest patch in the 1980s; they picked up post Chandni (1989). It was literally one success after another. And then DDLJ came out on Diwali. When you have that kind of a success, you would want to repeat it. It became a formula.” Yash Chopra followed this formula till Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), his swan song. Chopra died a month before the film’s release. It was the least successful of his Diwali films.
The formula seemed to have lost its potency.
Manoj Desai, executive director, G7 Multiplex and Maratha Mandir, was a good friend of Yash Chopra. He is a colourful raconteur of the older days of the Hindi film trade but he is in no mood for stories on the day we met, in September. He shows me a handwritten note, a break-up of the low ticket sales from the ongoing matinee show of B.A. Pass 2. “My memory has become very weak,” he says. He remembers a GST submission to be made the next day and our meeting is cut short. But he has something to show before I leave. He unlocks his smartphone and shows me a file of the pirated copy of Poster Boys, a film which had released a week earlier. He presses the play button to show me the high quality of the video. “Full HD,” he says.
Once every week, the manager of Maratha Mandir goes to the Mumbai Central railway station nearby so that he can use the free Wi-Fi to download new movies. He downloads the latest Hindi films and transfers them to Desai’s phone. Desai does not need to watch these pirated copies—they are playing on the big screen at his theatres. He is simply gauging competition. And he sounds defeated. “Yeh jo hai na (this thing here),” he says, pointing to his smartphone screen, “bohut bada ho gaya hai (this has become too big).”