Saand Ki Aankh releasing with Housefull 4 this Diwali shows the tectonic shift in business of Hindi cinema
This Diwali will see a small film with two women in the lead, Saand Ki Aankh, release alongside a tentpole film like Akshay Kumar-starrer Housefull 4.
This Diwali weekend indicates a subtle but definite shift in the way Hindi films have begun to function. A competitive festive weekend, which superstars would block well in advance to rake in the moolah, Diwali would witness only one big ticket ensemble cast film in Housefull 4.
With Akshay Kumar, Ritesh Deshmukh, and Kriti Sanon among others cast in a comedy, that aims for star clout and glamour over story, the coast for the blockbuster tag is clear. But one must also count on Saand Ki Aankh, an unusual Diwali release. Starring Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar, Saand Ki Aankh is about grandmothers from Haryana, who happen to India’s oldest sharpshooters. It is a far cry from glamour but holds out promise of an engaging, homegrown Indian story.
The Diwali weekend film releases and clashes made news for over a decade consistently. With the onset of multiplexes across Indian cities, the big festive weekends began to be marked out to make big money at the box office. Eid, Christmas, and the Independence Day weekends also join Diwali now. The idea was simple: it is that time of the year when people want to go out with their families and friends, and spend some money on a movie. With big stars featuring in these films, chances of people shelling out the high costs of multiplex tickets were higher. Editor of film trade magazine and trade analyst Amul Mohan says, “The principle of one spending money on film tickets for the entire family still applies. It’s when middle class people get bonuses and want to celebrate with their families. But watching a movie can cost you anything between 2,000 to 3,000 rupees as tickets are priced between 300 to 500 rupees per person at the lowest cost. So they assess if the film is worth their money, given that at a fraction of that cost, people can watch the same film on a streaming platform just a few months later.”
Epic box office clashes over Diwali in recent memory feature Shah Rukh Khan prominently. First, there was his home production Om Shanti Om versus Saawariya by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He won this round hands down, as Bhansali’s dense and gloomy film did not impress the audience. Then there was Jab Tak Hain Jaan, Yash Chorpa’s swansong before his sudden death, and the mass-oriented comedy Son of Sardaar by Ajay Devgan. This clash turned ugly when Devgan approached the Competition Commission, alleging bullying tactics and market manipulation by Yash Raj Films. Eventually, both films did decently, with Son of Sardaar getting a heads up on entertainment value in the initial week. Of course, an eye opener of sorts was in 2018 when Thugs of Hindostan sank at the box office. Over-hyped, riding on the fact that Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan were working together for the first time, the film under-performed, given its mediocre content.
Perhaps, this was the eye opener that Hindi film distributors and exhibitors needed. Distributor and exhibitor Akshaye Rathi agrees, “I think it’s about time that the Hindi film industry moves beyond this dependence on a festive weekend or holiday for a film to do well. It’s time to focus on content and on telling good stories. Audiences are exposed to lots of quality content now from various platforms. If you look at the past couple of years, films like Stree, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Kabir Singh, and Badhaai Ho grossed numbers that were totally unexpected. These films rode on stars but not superstars. Rather stars, who have a following amongst select members of audience, led them. Because the content appealed, they benefited from a positive word-of-mouth. And they did well. Blocking a date of release won’t be necessary if a film has good content,” he explains.
As the hype machinery around a festive weekend and a film also begins to mellow down, what emerges is that a younger crop of stars can pull crowds if they star in a good film. In fact, the month of October is testimony to this. Gandhi Jayanti had the Yash Raj mega flick War, starring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, but the real star of the film is its eye-popping action, resembling a Hollywood action extravaganza. Then there is The Sky is Pink, a touching real-life-inspired story, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Farhan Akhtar, and Zaira Wasim. October also has Laal Kaptaan, under-hyped and below the radar, but starring Saif Ali Khan, the Khan who connected with the millennial audience with Sacred Games. Without trying to align to marketing pitches around festival-related hype, these films are riding on their individualistic, engaging stories. Actors feature in them as part of the scheme.
Amul Mohan makes an interesting point here. “Exhibitors still love their stars, they depend on films featuring stars to make consistent profits. But with Hollywood tent pole or event films coming in, there is scope for distributing this pressure of filling movie theatres. India has about 50 to 60 Hollywood films releasing each year, but only 7 to 10 are event movies that have increased their business massively. Avengers: Endgame clocked in approximately Rs 244 crores, and The Lion King as well as the latest Fast and Furious film has also made a huge profit. In addition to this, when films featuring, say Rajkummar Rao or Ayushmann Khurrana, do so well, then exhibitors welcome this. They add screens, and keep them running in theatres for a longer time. Article 15 is also a good example of this, a small film that has done very well because it is well made and a good story."
In 2018, Zero and Thugs of Hindostan proved to be eye openers that the Khan tag will not work on weak content. In fact, according to exhibitors and distributors, Race 3 is also an under-performing film. Clearly, this shift in the way audiences dent film businesses has sent Bollywood’s biggest stars back to the drawing board. Therefore, a big Diwali tentpole film is missing beyond the safe bet of an ensemble comedy. Mindless comedies work for they make for lighthearted entertaining viewing. But as Akshaye Rathi points out, “These are concepts that have emerged because we were lagging behind in the quality of our films. Look at Baahubali. It released during Ramzaan, when small films also avoid making it to theatres. But it broke all records for Indian cinema, and kept growing with time. Ultimately, audiences will spend their money and time on a film that they think is worth it.”
All images from YouTube.
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