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NEW DELHI : The upcoming Diwali weekend will see the biggest line-up of movies since the covid-19 pandemic hit the industry, with box office takings set to reveal if the good times are back for good for theatres and the film business.

Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi is the big-ticket Bollywood offering that theatres have been waiting for to lure audiences, especially in small towns. But it will have to contend with Eternals, a Marvel offering very popular among the youth and Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe that is likely to be a big draw in south India. With Maharashtra now open and key states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu having allowed 100% occupancy, multiplexes say they’re hopeful of a Diwali on par with the festive weekends of 2019.

Another Tamil film, Enemy, is also releasing for the festive weekend.

“Diwali is certainly a much sought-after period for producers for release of their big movie line-up, and this year is no different. The Diwali weekend looks good against the pre-covid Diwali weekend of 2019, as the movie slate is more promising. This is an ideal blockbuster Diwali movie weekend, and there is already pent-up demand for these movies, which the audiences are eagerly awaiting," said Gautam Dutta, chief executive of PVR Ltd.

“While one can say that this is the first festival since the pandemic to see the release of big-ticket films like pre-pandemic times, we need to be still wary of the response on a national level as there is a large number of states operating on restricted capacities," Dutta added.

A still from Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe.
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A still from Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe.

With large scale films gracing the big screen this Diwali, it’s only fair to call this the first big theatrical festival, said Ashish Saksena, chief operating officer-cinemas at ticketing site BookMyShow. “We had seen a good uplift around Pongal 2021 with movies that were limited to regional releases. In comparison, Diwali 2021 holds the promise of being the first national festive release in more than 18 months, with multiple releases across India and in five different languages," Saksena added.

This is definitely a true test for the future of the film business that has, so far, only seen success from regional cinema, agreed Rajendar Singh Jyala, chief programming officer, INOX Leisure Ltd. Hindi films like Bellbottom had been released earlier without night shows and Maharashtra re opened cinemas only at the end of October.

“A lot of announcements have been made for future weeks, but the entire mood will depend on the numbers of these films. But we have great hope that we will be able to replicate the Diwali of 2019," Jyala added.

Despite the shutdown of several theatres over the past few months, Sooryavanshi is expected to notch up a screen count of 4,000 plus, according to trade website Box Office India, making for one of the widest releases ever. It will, however, face stiff competition from Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe that will take up at least 2,000 screens across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Kerala, beside major metro cities such as Delhi NCR and Mumbai. Eternals, which will be dubbed in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, will manage another 1,000-1,500.

“It does look like good times are back. While the southern market has seen hits regularly, it has been quite a dry spell for the north, barring Punjab," said Bihar-based independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan. He said people have been inquiring about Sooryavanshi several days in advance even though Eternals is a bigger draw for the youth. Further, the Hollywood film is releasing on the same day in India as the rest of the world.

“Family audiences and the tier-II and tier-III towns will be best for Sooryavanshi. But it is critical for the film to be really good and propel word-of-mouth," said Chauhan, who feels the only disadvantage for the action drama could be how long audiences have known of it and that it has begun to appear dated.

To be sure, multiplex chains such as PVR and INOX had not opened advances for Sooryavanshi as of Wednesday morning, with the final distributor-exhibitor share yet to be decided upon. However, Box Office India said single-screens in cities like Lucknow, Bhopal, Agra and Ahmedabad were seeing good traction for the film that releases on Friday.

“It is very difficult to put absolute estimates on advance bookings for Sooryavanshi, Eternals and Annaatthe since cinemas are continuing to open up and add screens by the hour as they become operationally ready for a festive demand. However, the early signs are more than just positive, and we are extremely optimistic on how these will fare on the business side," Saksena said, adding that all three movies cater to all demographics and audience preferences, thus setting the stage for a strong revival. “Additionally, we have seen widespread Internet adoption, with users adopting digital means of transactions increase significantly. This directly impacts our potential consumer base positively and will be a good catalyst in aiding our recovery cycle," Saksena added.

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