ipl 2015 logoSince it began in 2008, the Indian Premier League cricket season has seen lines increasingly blurred between the sport and Bollywood, both of which are among the biggest cultural passions in the massive country. Six weeks long, and with a brand value of some $3.2B, the IPL has similarities to both the U.S. Super Bowl and the soccer World Cup when it comes to cinema. Like the Super Bowl, it can be a useful marketing tool for local studios to build awareness and hype for upcoming releases; and like the World Cup, it’s an opportunity to counterprogram some titles in a period during which the biggest A-list movies are absent. IPL season creates “an opportunity for everyone else,” I’m told.

anushka sharma ipl opening nightThe season officially kicked off today, following a gala opening event in Kolkata last night that featured such Bollywood stars as Hrithik Roshan and Anushka Sharma. Roshan last appeared in Bang Bang, Fox International Productions and Fox Star Studios’ remake of Knight And Day which was the fourth biggest grosser in India last year and third amongst Bollywood releases in the U.S. He and Sharma have been linked to Shekhar Kapur’s Paani which is in development, and Sharma recently appeared in PK, the 2014 release that is now the highest-grossing Bollywood movie of all time. She’s next starring opposite Ranbir Kapoor in Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap’s period crime epic which releases on May 15, near the tail-end of the IPL games. Last night, she sang a medley of Bollywood tunes. Think of it as the Super Bowl half-time show, only at the beginning instead of the middle; social media has been abuzz all day. (See trailers for the major upcoming IPL releases below)

srk kolkata knight ridersLending to the star power that surrounds the IPL, Shah Rukh Khan (aka the King of Bollywood) owns a stake in defending champions, the Kolkata Knight Riders. He regularly attends matches while other A-listers with upcoming movies regularly show up in the stands or the commentary booth for games which are rabidly watched by both sports and film fans at home and across the diaspora (ESPN has rights in the U.S.).

A 2014 academic study, Bollywoodizing Cricket — Hindi Films & IPL Cricket found “Bollywood players have taken over the sports stadium that changed the entire game play to a Bollywood mix where there is song dance and lots of drama involved in it… For cricket as well as the Bollywood industry, it is a win-win situation, as both flourish on the reputation of either.”

deepika padukoneBollywood functions at a different pace than Hollywood, meaning that trailers for movies several months away often aren’t ready for primetime during the IPL. But when Bollywood comes up with the goods, it helps. During the final IPL match of 2013, a promo was shown for SRK/Deepika Padukone-starrer Chennai Express which wasn’t due out for months. It went on to be the year’s 3rd biggest grosser at home, and notably cracked the U.S. Top 10 on opening weekend. This year could see a push for Fox Star Studios’ M.S. Dhoni – The Untold Story, an epic biopic of the Indian cricketer starring Sushant Singh Rajput whose latest film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, opened in the U.S. Top 20 this past weekend.

mr x posterCricket is “always on the radar” of Indian studios and filmmakers, I’m told. But when the IPL began, there was a tendency for films to be held from theaters during the period, in much the same way that the World Cup soccer event sees distributors shy away from major movies in Europe and Latin America. That was especially the case from 2008-2012 when multiplexes reportedly showed IPL promos rather than films. Increasingly, however, the trend is shifting as more movies are counterprogrammed, and more stars claim IPL season for themselves. (Various holidays on the Indian calendar are already closely linked with A-list names: Diwali and Shah Rukh Khan, Eid and Salman Khan, and the Christmas/New Year period with Aamir Khan.)

With those folks perhaps attending matches, but not toplining movies during the IPL, counterprogramming with offbeat, edgy and female-skewing films is part of the trend. The next several weeks will see such releases as Vikram Bhatt’s Mr. X, a 3D suspense thriller with Emraan Hashmi. Fox Star Studios is releasing it in India and Fox International Productions in North America on April 17. Fox Star also co-produced and is distributing the highly-anticipated Bombay Velvet on May 15. The company is no stranger to IPL, having found success in the 2012 season with Jannat 2, produced by Mr. X’s Mukesh Bhatt and also starring Hashmi. Last year, it backed 100th anniversary of Bollywood omnibus, Bombay Talkies, a section of which was helmed by Anurag Kashyap.

amitabh bachchan pikuAlso coming this IPL are Gabbar Is Back with Akshay Kumar of 2012 IPL hit Housefull 2; Ek Paheli Leela with Sunny Leone who was in 2013’s IPL release Shootout At Wadala; and inter-generational comedy Piku from Vicky Donor helmer Shoojit Sircar and starring Deepika Padukone with legends Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan.

Filmmakers have “moved on from the fear factor that was associated with the biggest sporting event in the country,” says industry site Bollywood Hungama.

I’ll keep an eye on how the major movies do in my international box office reports over the next six IPL weeks. In the meantime, check out the trailers below for Mr. X, Piku, Bombay Velvet and Gabbar Is Back:

Mr. X
The 3D sci-fi suspense thriller hails from top horror helmer Vikram Bhatt who reteams with star Emraan Hashmi after their collaboration on 2012 hit Raaz 3. Hashmi plays a man who harnesses the power of invisibility and uses it to right the wrongs of a corrupt society:

Piku
Releasing May 8 (Yash Raj is handling North America), the family comedy drama stars Deepika Padukone and Life Of Pi and Jurassic World‘s Irrfan Khan along with Big B himself, Amitabh Bachchan (Great Gatsby):

Bombay Velvet
Anurag Kashyap’s crime drama will be released in India and several offshore markets including North America on May 15. Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma star.

Gabbar Is Back
Akshay Kumar’s lead character is a vigilante fighting corruption. Kareena Kapoor (3 Idiots) also stars. The film goes out May 1 in India (there is no U.S. release date yet, but one is expected):