Bollywood hopes Diwali will light up box office

Bollywood is pinning its hopes on two of this year's biggest films opening on Friday to rev up a lacklustre box office for the festive Diwali season.

People buy tickets at a counter in a multiplex movie theatre in Mumbai November 22, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta/Files

The Indian film industry, the world's largest by ticket sales, is waiting to see if Karan Johar's "Ae Dil Hai Mushkil" and Ajay Devgn's "Shivaay" will pull in viewers during the country's festival of lights.

Traditionally, the film industry has cashed in on the increased spending power of Indian audiences during Diwali, Bollywood’s most important moviegoing season.

This year, there’s more at stake.

Johar's romance drama had been embroiled in controversy for featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan as tensions rose between India and Pakistan after an escalation of violence in Kashmir. Threats by a right-wing group in Mumbai opposing the film's release had stirred fears of violence at cinemas screening "Ae Dil Hai Mushkil".

"As a theatre owner, I support Karan Johar but I'd be wary of screening his film if there was any indication of a disruption," film distributor and theatre owner Akshay Rathi told Reuters last week. "It takes only one incident to deter the cinegoer."

In welcome news for Bollywood producers and movie fans, a crisis was averted with a compromise reached at the weekend.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena called off the protests after the Film and Television Producers Guild of India promised not to work with Pakistani artistes in future. In addition, the makers of “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” agreed to contribute 50 million rupees (over $748,000) to an army welfare fund.

The film, featuring Johar’s trademark star appeal and swanky locations, is not expected to suffer any long-term effects. Weeks of publicity have built up huge anticipation and the film’s box-office prospects remain bright.

“The regular moviegoer will not really be deterred by this controversy,” said Shailesh Kapoor, whose company Ormax Media tracks Indian releases. “The movie has been tracking well and the music especially seems to be doing really well.”

Johar's film will compete for audiences with actor Ajay Devgn's directorial debut "Shivaay", a thriller based loosely on Liam Neeson's 2008 film "Taken", with Devgn playing a man trying to rescue his daughter from kidnappers.

Success for both films could reduce industry losses in a year in which most big productions have bitten the dust and only a handful of films tasted success.

Actor Salman Khan's "Sultan" is the only major Bollywood hit this year, ahead of Disney's "The Jungle Book" which grossed 1.8 billion rupees ($27 million) in a rare box-office triumph for Hollywood in India.