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The government of Kerala has allowed movie theatres to reopen with 50% capacity from 5 January just in time for the big movie releases scheduled later this month. Tamil superstar Vijay's film Master, scheduled for the Pongal weekend, could prove to be a turning point for the local film business battered by covid-19, given that it is the first big-ticket Indian film to hit screens post the lockdown. Pongal, though celebrated with great fervour in Tamil Nadu, is expected to boost recovery in the film exhibition business across the country this year that had somewhat kick-started with Hollywood flicks Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 in December.

While Master, also being dubbed in Hindi, is the biggest movie offering for the festive weekend, there are also three Telugu films—Krack starring Ravi Teja, Ram Pothineni’s Red and Alludu Adhurs starring B. Sai Sreenivas, Nabha Natesh and Anu Emmanuel. With Kerala, all of south India is now ready to welcome people back to cinemas while two north Indian states, Jharkhand and Rajasthan are yet to reopen, posing a challenge to the release of pan-Indian Hindi films. The government of Odisha also allowed cinemas to reopen starting January.

“South Indian movies have an aura of their own, and therefore a definite role to play in the overall recovery process of the industry. The hugely anticipated movie Master, starring Vijay is releasing on Pongal," Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer, INOX Leisure Ltd confirmed. Jyala added that the film exhibition business has come a long way since operations resumed in the middle of October and chains like theirs are witnessing a steady and gradual increase in average footfall, including some full house shows for Tenet.

“Of course, the impact of lack of new content is evident, as we are yet to reach our usual operational benchmarks, but the signs are optimistic. The current situation clearly highlights the importance of new movies for bringing crowds back to cinemas. We are expecting to see a steady flow of fresh content after a period of three to four weeks, and we can presume that the month of February would see strong recovery," Jyala added.

To be sure, theatre owners and trade experts are placing their bets on south India to drive recovery in 2021. Trade experts point to the massive popularity of the dubbed Hindi versions of films made in these languages on satellite television channels and familiarity that audiences have built with top actors on TV and social media. Kunal Sawhney, senior vice-president at Carnival Cinemas added that big-ticket titles such as Master are likely to get great traction in north Indian states such as Indore, Ahmedabad, Jalandhar and Mumbai that plenty of students and professionals have migrated to from south India.

To be sure, Pongal and Baisakhi are celebrated across the country and added to opening weekend festivities of films such as Rajinikanth’s Darbar (Tamil), Ajay Devgn’s Tanhaji- The Unsung Warrior (Hindi), Mahesh Babu's Sarileru Neekevvaru (Telugu) and Allu Arjun's Ala Vaikunthapurramloo (Telugu) in January 2020.

About 70-75% of the exhibition sector in south India is currently taken up by single screens, while the remaining is with multiplexes, underlining the importance of mainstream commercial entertainers and big star vehicles there. The multiplex count was expected to double between 2019 and 2021, before the pandemic.

“The film exhibition sector is yet to find its mojo but the ball will be set to motion with these south Indian films by February and the momentum will peak by March and then it will be only be a matter of time before big Hindi films also release in big numbers," Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures Ltd and chief business planning and strategy PVR Ltd said.

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