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When sparks fly


Yash Chopra's final film with Shah Rukh Khan will clash with an Ajay Devgn starrer at a cinema near you this Diwali. So just when did the festival of light become an occasion for such box office duels?

It promises to be the biggest dhamaka at the Bollywood box office this Diwali. Yash Chopra's swan song, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and Ajay Devgn's Son of Sardar (SoS) will duke it out for supremacy in over 5, 000 cinemas across the nation. And Bollywood isn't too happy, largely because it exposes how uneasy equations between stars really are.

Many industry seniors feel that this spat could've been avoided and Devgn should have changed his release dates. "There are others who feel that there was a miscalculation on the part of the producers of SoS, " says trade analyst Amod Mehra. "Yash Raj booked the cinema halls much in advance and did not wait till October to sign up with cinemas. They have not violated any rule;it has been a tradition to book cinemas in advance, which they did. "

But while the film production and distribution communities are irked, the exhibitors are excited about this Diwali clash. As Fun Cinema's Vishal Anand says, "The two films together in the first 10 days will easily do a business of Rs 250 crore. Never before has Indian cinema seen this magnitude of business. It is going to be the biggest Diwali in nearly more than a decade. "

Both Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn's previous Diwali releases have been superhits. Shah Rukh has had five Diwali releases in the past decade and Devgn has had about three. And such clashes are not unheard of. The last big one was in 2007 when Shah Rukh Khan's Om Shanti Om released along with Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya. Though both opened big Saawariya failed to perform at the box office. Bollywood Diwali releases were not a big deal until the 1980s. Films made for the Indian diaspora in the '90s changed all that. "Before the economy opened up, Diwali at the box office was not big. Diwali was about celebrating with family and friends and not about going to the cinema. But there were film parties. Stars sent sweets to each other's house and Rajesh Khanna was considered to the big one at that, " points out Dilip Thakur. P Ramanathan of Rajshri Productions adds, "In 1974, Roti (starring Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz ), Bidaai (with Jeetendra) and Benaam (with Amitabh Bachchan) were clashing with each other. Roti became a runaway hit and Benaam proved to be below average. Bidaai was a slow starter because of the clashes, but went on to become the biggest hit of all the three releases. " There was also no race to block theatres during Diwali.

As Prakash Pange points out, "The only importance given by filmmakers then was to where the 'main' theatre was, and each one had his fixed cinema. Rajshri filmsreleased in (Mumbai's ) Liberty, Shakti Samanta chose Roxy Cinema, while Manmohan Desai preferred Minerva as he connected with Muslim audiences. " Besides, films of the '60s and '70s had no Diwali fixation. "RK Films preferred to release films during the monsoon. Besides there was enough place for all kinds and number of films. Releases were limited to 30 to 40 prints. Only a big film had 100 prints, " says Randhir Kapoor.

"What is happening today at the Diwali box office is the doing of multiplex era. The business of cinema has changed, audiences have grown, and so has the business of cinema, " says Komal Nahta. "I remember Rajshri releasing Hum Aapke Hain Kaun with just 29 prints in 1991;they went on to add 70 prints after the release which is not going to happen with the kind of business today. It is only about the first two weeks, so distributors flood the market with maximum number of prints, " he adds.
In 1996, Raja Hindustani and Ghatak were released during Diwali and both went on to do well at the box office and Raja Hindustani was one of the biggest hits. Its producer Karim Morani says, "There were no issues at all between us. Sunny and Raj Santoshi were friends and we released our film on November 11 and they released on November 8. Diwali was somewhere in between. "

For the man in the middle this time around, Shah Rukh Khan, Diwali bonanzas started with Baazigar and continue till date. His Diwali hits include Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Veer-Zaara (2004).
But as Mehra notes, "There have been some Diwalis which were not good for the film industry. " In 2006, Shah Rukh Khan's Don released with Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan starrer Jaaneman. Don was a hit and Jaaneman flopped. 2005 was also a dark Diwali, with only Akshay Kumar's Garam Masala succeeding, while Salman Khan's Kyon Ki and Zayed Khan starrer Shaadi No. 1 were washouts.

Clearly, in this fight between Khan and Devgn, the only clear winners are going to be cinemas across the country. It is certainly going to be a big, bright Diwali for them.

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