Diwali, described variously as the Hindu New Year and the religion’s festival of lights, marks the end of a holy month bookended by two new moons and a slew of festivals in between—including the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. It also marks one of the biggest box office days on the planet, thanks to the rising popularity of Bollywood films.
“Diwali is the biggest Indian holiday of the year, so in turn, the Bollywood industry uses it to launch some of its biggest films,” Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, said in an email. “The audience is available at this time and often has multiple days off from work and school. Going out to the movies with the family to see something really big is a tradition.”
Last year’s Diwali releases were seen in thousands of theaters around the world and grossed $1.53 billion in sales in 2013. That might not seem like much compared to Hollywood, where The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, timed for a holiday season release, grossed nearly $11 billion alone in 2013; Hollywood earned $36 billion in 2013.
But no other film industry is close to competing with Hollywood’s dominance, and Bollywood’s sheer volume of movies produced—industry experts estimate about 1000 films are released and 3.3 billion tickets are sold per year—mean that it’s major on the global stage. Between 2010 and 2014, revenue from the Indian film industry has steadily grown about 40 percent, from $3.2 billion to an expected $5 billion this year, according to Ernst and Young.
And with a global stage, production houses are increasingly relying on box office returns outside South Asian borders for the holiday. With Bollywood’s fan base of 2.8 billion people scattered around the world—many of whom can’t even watch the movies without subtitles—production companies like Fox are lining up to fund Indian would-be blockbusters and get a grasp of the market.
But like its Los Angeles-based name doppelgänger, Bollywood has been facing declining ticket sales, thanks to a combination of other media that grabs attention (India’s digital presence is astronomically growing) and a flourishing piracy market for just-released flicks. So while the worldwide audience has been growing for the song-and-dance centric musicals, the audience within Indian borders has stayed stagnant, thanks to a standstill economy and, more importantly, boredom with formulaic escapist cinema.
This means that this year’s Diwali has extra pressure to live up to being the industry’s savior, particularly abroad. Think of Diwali like a meshing of Memorial Day’s slick blockbusters with Christmas big-budget releases in Hollywood, and you get a sense of the tentative significance of Diwali for Bollywood. While 75 percent of sales still come from within Indian borders, analysts expect nine percent of ticket sales to come from abroad—with more cash flowing in during the holiday weekend from foreign fans (the remainder of entertainment revenue comes from a mix of cable, video, and piracy).
“Producers plant their flag on Diwali well in advance for their A-list projects just as Hollywood studios do for Christmas or Thanksgiving,” Pandya said. “[The] Diwali box office is usually driven most by the films themselves and how big the stars are. Holidays like these lead to greater box-office sales for Bollywood, while major cricket tournaments lead to lower movie sales as producers do not want to compete during those times.”
This year’s highly anticipated Diwali release is an action caper that stars the industry’s most bankable star, Shah Rukh Khan, nicknamed “King Khan” for his quarter century dominance on the silver screen and capability of churning even the slowest box office season (Pandya notes that “four of the top five Bollywood opening weekends of all time are his films”). His leading lady, Deepika Padukone, is one of the industry’s most reliable heroines and was launched alongside Khan in the 2006 Diwali megahit, Om Shanti Om.
Khan and Padukone are teaming up again with the Om Shanti Om director, Farah Khan (no relation to Shah Rukh) and generating excitement for their second venture together. The trio’s Diwali 2014 release, Happy New Year, has all the ingredients for a masala hit beyond the star power lineup and over-the-top story about six oddball con artists in a dance competition: catchy earworms, bright lights and glitzy locales featuring blinding pyrotechnics in every other scene, cheesy lines interspersed with abs-tacular men and skimpily clad women, and the requisite dash of Diwali merrymaking. Along with wide release on Friday in India, Happy New Year is releasing in around 260 screens in the U.S. and Canada—a huge opening for a three-hour foreign film on soil where English is spoken.
But Happy New Year faces competition from Bang Bang!, a remake of Knight and Day produced by Fox Star India (a derivative of Fox) that got a jump on the Diwali crush by releasing three weeks ago, near the beginning of the Hindu festival season. With many of the same features as Happy New Year (impeccable bodies, fiery explosions, vacation destinations, and peppy tunes) along with an equally strong lead pair (Hrithik Roshan, known for both his fluid dancing skills and heartthrob status, and Katrina Kaif, who has soundly silenced criticism of her poor Hindi and acting skills with a nearly perfect track record at the box office), Bang Bang! splashed onto the scene as a potential re-energizer for the industry.
But Bang Bang! might not be the bang the industry was hoping for: Early box-office returns suggest that while the movie is set to break records to become one of the highest grossing films of the year, it’s one of the costliest productions. Thus far, the movie has grossed about 173 crore ($32 million); given that the movie cost about 140 crore ($26 million) to produce, the profit margin is looking scarily thin. And on the third week of release, the chances for the movie to make more money are looking slim.
That’s why producers are hoping foreign Bollywood fans will also buy tickets this weekend. With the release of Happy New Year on Friday, the industry is anticipating that a Shah Rukh Khan-led machine—however tacky, however recycled the storyline, however unapologetically Bollywood the film is—will make cash registers sing and dance this Diwali.