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NEW DELHI: With two big films -- Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha and Akshay Kumar’s Rakshabandhan--releasing on Thursday, cinemas across India are getting ready for the first full-fledged Independence Day weekend in two years flanked by the Rakhi holiday, giving ample time for families to visit theatres. The two films are running neck-and-neck in screen count and number of shows and are expected to end Bollywood’s dry spell at the box office.

However, media analysts said advance bookings for the two films seem dull with Lal Singh Chaddha expected to open day one with 15 crore and Rakshabandhan at 10-12 crore. The films are not high on action or mass appeal to bring in young audiences or clock big numbers, they said. But cinema owners are banking on walk-in crowds during the festival holiday period.

“We’re very hopeful about this long holiday, starting with Rakhi this week, going on to Independence Day and further the Parsi New Year and Janmashtami next week, which could result in one of the most lucrative business periods of all time," said Rajendar Singh Jyala, chief programming officer at INOX Leisure Ltd. Bollywood has seen its share of hits and misses over the past three to four months since theatres started operating at full capacity, Jyala added, but cinemas are hoping the two new films will help break the jinx.

It’s a dream weekend and the first real clash at the movies post the pandemic, said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema. It signals that the business is returning to normalcy, he said.

The clash is unlikely to be detrimental to either film as cinemas have been starved of Hindi language content. With a screen count of 3,500, Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Hollywood classic Forrest Gump, may be leading as Khan hasn’t been seen on the big screen in four years, trade experts said. Besides, he’s marketed the film well even in the south where the dubbed version will find respectable showcasing thanks to local distribution partnerships.

On the other hand, Rakshabandhan, likely to be seen on 2,500 screens, follows Kumar’s two recent flops, Samrat Prithviraj and Bachchhan Paandey. The actor, however, has managed to score big on Independence Day in the past, with nationalistic tales like Rustom, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Gold and Mission Mangal.

“Festivals have always brought together families and friends over their shared love for entertainment at the theatre and this long weekend is no different. Surely, this year the festivals will be celebrated with greater grandeur away from the fear of covid, which is a positive sign," said Ashish Saksena, chief operating officer, cinemas at ticketing site BookMyShow. A critical factor that is likely to give an edge to Laal Singh Chaddha is its release in multiple languages, Saksena added. Rakshabandhan, on the other hand, has a shorter run-time and the length of the film may result in more shows across cinema screens in the initial days.

The coming weekend has been described as make or break situation for the Hindi film industry that has hit rock bottom over the past few months with multiple box office disasters. Karan Taurani, senior vice-president at Elara Capital Ltd estimates that Hindi box office will decline 22%, versus pre-covid levels in the second quarter of FY23, as content has been below par so far.

The bump in overall business, however, may be attributed to large-scale southern and Hollywood films, proving that audiences are not averse to visiting cinemas. According to a survey by community social media platform LocalCircles, 29% citizens visited a cinema hall or a multiplex to watch a movie in the last 60 days while 22% say they will go in the next 60 days.

Vishek Chauhan, a Bihar-based independent exhibitor said the theatrical audience has shrunk by 30-40% post covid, with older, mature and wealthier viewers having left for good. “Both Laal Singh Chaddha and Rakshabandhan are dramas, which as a genre, is a tough sell today in cinemas. The young theatrical audience is gung-ho about universally appealing films, that are high on energy, action and special effects," he pointed out.

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