The end of Ramadan is approaching, and with it the Eid-al-fitr holiday that celebrates the close of the holy month of fasting. For Bollywood, that essentially means one thing: Salman Khan has a movie coming out. The superstar typically owns the frame, and while that’s unlikely to change this year, there are some interesting caveats surrounding this week’s day-and-date release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (trailer above) which could impact business — in either direction.
Khan, who is among the top grossers ever in Bollywood — alongside the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan — made non-biz headlines in May when he was handed a guilty verdict and a five-year prison sentence in a hit-and-run case that has been wending its way through the Mumbai court system for nearly 14 years. When he was convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, alarm bells went off throughout the industry — Bajrangi was reportedly not yet fully completed. That caused shares in Eros International, the film’s distributor, to drop sharply that week, before rebounding when Khan was granted bail pending appeal two days after the verdict. News of the bail was met by massive fan celebrations. The industry also breathed a sigh of relief given the importance of its A-listers who are responsible for sizable chunks of annual box office — the actor had commitments to four other pictures at the time.
According to watchers, the media frenzy surrounding Khan’s case has served to increase interest in Bajrangi. “With his recent jail trouble, fans and media have only upped the volume on Salman,” says BoxOfficeGuru editor Gitesh Pandya who also consults on the Indian biz. So, crisis averted.
But then came Baahubali. That Tollywood (or Telugu) film just smashed box office records this weekend both in India and in the U.S. With $4.6M in the States, it beat opening weekends for such Bollywood blockbusters as PK and Chennai Express. Locally, it made about 153 crore ($24M) in its first three days, a huge start that bested the opening day record of Shah Rukh Khan’s Happy New Year which released at Diwali 2014.
Baahubali is a period war epic said to be the most expensive Indian film ever made at about $40M. Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a romantic action drama about a man who undertakes the task of bringing a lost girl home to her family in Pakistan. Kareena Kapoor whose credits include 3 Idiots, Singham Returns and Gabbar Is Back, reteams here with Khan, her Dabaang 2 and Bodyguard co-star.
Different genres, but is Baahubali cause for worry in the Salman Khan camp? I’m told there is little overlap for the audiences of that film and Bajrangi, but the Tollywood, Kollywood (the Tamil biz) and Bollywood industries each have their rabid fan bases — recall that India is a market where as much as 90% of the box office can come from homegrown movies.
Multiplexes only have so many screens, so, industry watchers believe there could be a slight impact on Bajrangi from the Baahubali phenom, particularly in the south. However, opines Pandya, “Those that only play films of one of the languages would not be impacted.” (Baahubali is in four versions: Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam; Bajrangi is in Hindi.)
With Khan so identified with the Eid holiday, “There is no sign whatsoever that fans are sick of this tradition. Add in its popular song about selfies and Bajrangi Bhaijaan is set to score one of the biggest openings of all time in India,” Pandya contends.
It wouldn’t be surprising. Salman’s Eid 2014 pic, Kick, was last year’s No. 2 highest-grosser in India. His previous top earners include Dabaang, Bodyguard and Ek Tha Tiger. He’s already staked a claim on Eid 2017 with Dabaang 3. But next year, he could face some competition of another sort. Shah Rukh Khan has taken the rare step of proclaiming he too will release a movie on Eid. SK’s 2016 Eid movie is actioner Sultan from Yash Raj and co-starring Deepika Padukone while SRK is adding crime drama Raees from Excel Entertainment to the frame. However, Pandya is skeptical the ultimate showdown will come to pass. “Having Shah Rukh and Salman schedule new films on Eid 2016 makes for great press now, but it’s exactly like having Captain America and Superman films on the same release date — eventually one will blink and move.”
Either way, these Bollywood majors continue to excite audiences at home and across the diaspora and there is no sign of a slowdown. In North America in May and June of this year, Bollywood films made the Top 20 domestic chart for eight consecutive weeks. Bajrangi Bhaijaan is likely to follow suit while Baahubali has added another dimension. Pandya notes, “The mammoth success this past weekend for the Telugu epic Baahubali proved that Indian cinema has more to offer than just Bollywood films.”