New Delhi: The cigarette-flipping Tamil superstar seems to be losing his hold among his legion of fanatical followers.

Rajinikanth’s action drama Kaala, which is set to arrive in theatres on Thursday, has registered the lowest advance booking and pre-release buzz for any film starring the legendary actor.

Unlike in the past, tickets for the first weekend hadn’t sold out in Tamil Nadu, even two days before the film’s release.

READ: Will Rajinikanth’s ‘Kaala’ be India’s Black Panther moment?

“Eventually, the shows will probably go house-full because the die-hard fans will come in hordes but that’s nothing for a Rajinikanth film. The pressure is not the same this time," said Rakesh Gowthaman, managing director of Vettri Theatres in Chennai. For Kabali, Rajinikanth’s last film released in July 2016, on the day Vettri opened bookings, shows were sold out from the first Friday until Tuesday. This time, seats were still available for Friday as well as Saturday as late as the Tuesday before Kaala’s release.

Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema, expects a Rs30 crore Day 1 for Kaala (which releases in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi) with anything between Rs25 crore and Rs28 crore from the south Indian versions and about Rs2.5 crore from Hindi. Kabali hadn’t stormed the box office either, making Rs48 crore from all its versions on the opening day.

What’s more worrisome is that Kaala is not even targeting as many screens as Kabali—about 2,000 compared with the 2016 film’s 3,000-3,500. Kaala distributors Lyca Productions did not respond to Mint’s queries.

Usually, the distribution rights of a Rajinikanth film are sold outright in advance before release but this time, trade experts say distributors aren’t willing to take a risk—they have bought the film on a commission basis, paying a certain amount for screening and then expecting to adjust as per box-office collections. Part of this may also have to do with Rajinikanth’s recent mixed record at the box office—apart from Kabali, Rajinikanth’s last two releases, Lingaa and Kochadaiiyaan, didn’t set the cash registers ringing either, earning Rs149 crore and Rs70 crore, respectively, unprofitable considering their massive budgets.

It’s unclear whether it’s the movie, the timing of the release or his politics that has put off some of Rajinikanth’s fans.

“The combination of director Pa. Ranjith and Rajinikanth didn’t really work in Kabali," Gowthaman pointed out. Further, the film’s April release was delayed because of a strike in the Tamil film industry.

“The pre-Eid period is typically the dullest for movie business," said independent film analyst Sreedhar Pillai. Plus, when Salman Khan’s action thriller Race 3 releases next week, said Pillai, it would be difficult to garner significant occupancy, even if you do get screens, at least in north India. Further, if you take the two-week window needed for a Salman-starrer to settle down, you’d be clashing with Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Sanju on 29 June. That doesn’t really leave the superstar, whose film has already seen delay, with much choice. Even this week, Kaala is fighting with science fiction adventure film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which has notched up 2,300 screens.

It’s a different story down south. The actor’s recent comments on the Cauvery water issue have invited a ban on the movie from the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce. Even though the Karnataka high court has asked the state to provide security to centres screening the movie, chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy said the makers should avoid releasing it in the state “considering the situation". The actor also caused a stir in Tamil Nadu by describing anti-Sterlite protestors in Tuticorin as “anti-social elements". The hurt to Tamil sentiments, trade experts say, may affect the film’s prospects not just domestically but even in overseas territories, where there is a significant Tamil population. In the era of accessible stardom and social media, industry experts say even a superstar like Rajinikanth is not immune to backlash. Age may also be catching up with the icon.

“The man is going to be 68 this year. A lot of the current generation has turned to younger stars. Plus his political views have only hampered things," Pillai said.

Not all is lost for Kaala. Pillai pointed out that the film has earned Rs75-100 crore from the sale of satellite and digital rights. Theatrical collections will only be additional revenue. The rest depends on the content of the film.

“Given that there is no hype, even if the film is decent, it should do well at the box office," Gowthaman said.

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