In 2019, Tamil cinema saw two major releases during the Diwali season. After the Mersal firecracker in 2017 and Sarkar in 2018, Vijay continued his festival streak with Atlee in Bigil. We also had Nayanthara in the squad, and a women's football team, all packed into a sports-revenge drama that was every bit a fan service to the star. The film had seven songs, accounting for close to 30 minutes of the film’s 3-hour runtime. On the other hand, we had Lokesh Kanagaraj teaming up with Karthi for Kaithi, one that would go on to create waves in the industry. Lokesh’s second film was devoid of songs and tear-jerker flashbacks. It wasn't anything like Bigil. Yet both films managed to entertain the audience and become hits at the box office.
Earlier that year, we had two star vehicles battle it out during Pongal — Viswasam and Petta; much like the Varisu vs. Thunivu clash we saw this year. The Vijay-Ajith festival was followed by Raghava Lawrence’s Rudhran and Aishwarya Rajesh’s Soppana Sundari during Tamil New Year (it was Beast and KGF in 2022), Leo for the Dasara week and Karthi’s Japan, Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda DoubleX and Vikram Prabhu’s Raid for this Diwali. There seems to be no single pattern, neither in terms of genre nor in terms of casting when it comes to these releases. So, what exactly constitutes a good box-office clash that satisfies the audience, producers, theatre owners and the entire ecosystem alike?
Solo films always work better, says entertainment tracker and columnist Sreedhar Pillai. “Tiger 3 for instance wouldn’t have had this opening if it had a real big competition. So, it is better to have a big hero film for the festival. If the content is okay, it will work well,” he says. In the last 15 years, there hasn't been a single instance where only one big star film hit the screens in Tamil cinema during the Diwali or Pongal weekend. The only slight exception is Sarkar, which was released along with a couple of very small-scale films.
However, exhibitor-distributor Tirupur Subramaniam does not agree with this statement. “If there is only one film, we can’t feed the theatres. There are 1168 screens across Tamil Nadu, and we can’t play just a single film on all these screens. So, if there are two films, we can play those in 600 screens each. This is why a minimum of two and maximum of three films are good for a festive box-office clash.” Kaarthekeyan Santhanam, the producer of Jigarthanda DoubleX agrees with Subramaniam but also asserts that clashes may harm producers.
He explains, “There should be clashes during the festive season, otherwise there wouldn’t be any excitement. When I worked with Karthik Subbaraj as an executive producer for Petta, I saw the kind of effect the Petta and Viswasam battle had. When two star-led films clash and if both of them have good content, it’s a celebration in itself. But it is true that the producer may lose some of his profit.”
But he urges us to look at this from a macro perspective. “Everyone is happy — right from the producers and makers to the audience and people who maintain the parking spaces. If there is a solo release, probably 100 people might park their cycles, but when there is a clash, it will become 200. So, when the whole ecosystem is happy, you should be happy as a producer. Because it is not always about making money and only when the ecosystem thrives, we also get to thrive.”
In the last 15 years, Vijay has had six Diwali and Pongal releases each, while Ajith released two Diwali releases and 3 Jallikattu special films; Rajinikanth has had three such films, and Kamal Haasan had one outing in 2015, Thoongavanam which went against Ajith’s Vedhalam. These two festive seasons have also been packed with films starring Suriya, Vishal, Karthi and Dhanush. “During festivals, people look forward to watching the big stars on the big screen. It’s special to watch your favourite stars and that’s how I want my festival to be,” Santhanam adds.
But a lot has changed, argues Pillai. “Diwali was a festival only for big films in Tamil Nadu. It used to be a Kamal or Rajinikanth film 15-20 years back and a film would release only on the day of Diwali. Even if the festival falls on a Monday or Tuesday, the film would be out only on that particular day. But a lot has changed now. Trackers consider the pre-Diwali period as a time when people are busy shopping and travelling to their native places. This is also why Japan and Jigarthanda DoubleX had the worst collections on Friday.”
However, Santhanam asserts that releasing Jigarthanda DoubleX on Friday, two days before Diwali, is actually a strategic decision that has helped the film. He says, “Let’s hypothetically say Jigarthanda DoubleX and Japan released on the day of Diwali. With Karthi sir’s fanbase and image, Japan would have easily had an advantage. But when we released the film beforehand, the word of mouth helped us reach more people, and Jigarthanda DoubleX reached its peak form on Diwali day. This organic growth is important for us. The collection numbers multiplied with each day, and day four did four times the numbers as the first day. So, those two added days are a bonus and the film spoke for itself.”
There have been times when smaller films have won the box-office, but this hasn’t happened so much in the recent years, says Pillai. Besides Kaithi, another prominent clash where a small film not only managed to get noticed but also win hearts was Meyaadha Maan, which was released alongside Mersal in 2017. While the film’s success took the audience by surprise, Santhanam, who backed the film, looks at the move as a mistake. “During the festive weekend, there is a default 20-30% increase in footfall and ticket sales than on normal days. But Meyaadha Maan was my first film and I didn’t think it through. The idea was that if the tickets for Mersal were over, people would walk in to watch another film during a festive season, and that with the right content, Meyaadha Maan would find its audience. All of these things did happen but I didn’t get many screens to release my film. I don’t have any qualms about it because that’s the reality; everyone wants to watch a bigger star on a bigger screen,” he says, adding that is why he waited for six years and planned a perfect Diwali release with Jigarthanda DoubleX.
Pillai adds, “No one goes to watch any film on a festive weekend anymore – they’re going to watch a particular film. Earlier, when films like even Rajinikanth’s Baashha released, it was out only on five screens in Chennai. But a lot has changed. Today, you can always get a ticket somewhere in Chennai and will have the facility to commute.”
While Santhanam and Pillai opine that a small film shouldn’t release alongside a big star film, Subramaniam says there are no set rules for a good clash during the festive season. He says, “We need one big star film, another film from the next level of artists and a smaller film. There are chances that all three may do well at the box office. If a small film begins to get good word of mouth, more screens will automatically be allotted. So, we definitely need a clash. Cinema will take care of the rest.”