Twenty-five years ago, when Vijay had his first Pongal release Coimbatore Mapillai in 1996, he could not make waves in the box office despite donning the "Ilaiya Thalapathy" title following the success of Rasigan a year earlier.
He had many festival releases since then, almost a dozen films on Pongal days in successive years. Half of them, Friends, Thiruppachi, Pokkiri, Kaavalan, Jilla and Nanban, were either blockbusters or hits.
For decades, Tamil stars kept their date with fans on important state festivals, mainly Pongal, Deepavali and Tamil new year.
The 1990s had Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan coming up with a film each on Pongal and Deepavali days. Rajni’s Thalapathi and Kamal’s Guna were released on Deepavali day in 1991. Similarly, Pandian and Thevar Magan locked horns on Deepavali the following year. One of the biggest Rajni blockbusters, Baashha, was released during Pongal in 1995.
Kaithi director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master, Vijay’s 2021 Pongal release, was initially scheduled for a release in April last year, close to the Tamil new year’s day. The pandemic made the wait longer by almost a year.
When it finally hit the screens last week, after rumours about an OTT release and social distancing norms forcing a reduction in the number of seats to nearly half, it brought back the Pongal festivities in all its glory instilling the fear of a post-festival surge in the number of COVID cases.
Box office vs social distancing
In Tamil cinema, most of the celebrations related to a superstar’s festival release happen outside the theaters than inside. Presently, except for Rajnikanth, no other star in Tamil can match the level of frenzy that Vijay commands.
Going by the pictures and videos that fans have been posting on social media, the arrival of Master made thousands of fans come out and celebrate, disregarding safety norms and social distancing.
Fans thronged the release centres right from midnight to catch the early morning shows. Though portions of the film were leaked online, they were swiftly curbed to keep the theatre occupancy intact.
The film, which did a pre-release business of over Rs.150 crores, has grossed over Rs.130 crores worldwide at the time of writing this. The satellite (Sun TV) and streaming rights (Amazon Prime Video) alone were reportedly sold for almost Rs.30 crores each. This is crucial for an industry that rides on billions of borrowed cash.
These big numbers reflect the growth of the streaming market in these pandemic times and the renewed role of TV as viewers continue to exercise restraint. There are many viewers who see value in waiting for a good quality streaming release until the fear of pandemic subsides with vaccination and other measures.
Pongal releases on OTT
Earlier, if a film was leaked online soon after its release in theatres, it could affect its satellite, DVD and streaming businesses.
Grainy “pre-DVD rips” of Master were available shortly after the release last week, but they did not seem to attract many users.
Contrary to what happened during Vijay’s earlier release Mersal, the leaked climax portions did not go viral either. Going forward, viewers who are now conditioned for almost a year to the quality streaming on OTT platforms are unlikely to watch low-quality recordings, even on their mobile phones.
Not to be left behind Master, Jayam Ravi’s Bhoomi and Simbu-starrer Easwaran, Amazon Prime Video started streaming their Pongal release Maara a week early to mixed reviews.
Maara turned out to be a much-rooted film compared to its original Charlie.
Madhavan’s trademark charm elevates the protagonist's appeal while Shraddha Sreenath’s measured performance ably supports him.
Remember, Amazon had released Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru during Deepavali last year, which had become a superhit.
The next big OTT release would be the Mohanlal-starrer Drishyam 2, the sequel to Jeetu Joseph’s 2013 thriller, which had triggered many remakes across languages. The film will start streaming in February.
Around Pongal, director Jeo Baby’s Malayalam woman empowerment drama The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK) was released on the new OTT platform Neestream.
Going by the positive reviews for the Nimisha Sajayan-Suraj Venjaramoodu film in the media and social networking sites, it could be Malayalam cinema’s first hit of the year.
Prime Reels, yet another OTT platform for Malayalam films, was launched recently, releasing the film Guardian.
While there are enough films lined up to be released on all these platforms and theatres, due to the absence of any production work last year, these new platforms' scalability to handle the subscriber traffic is still being tested.
How to keep it going
The pandemic still looms large, with newer variants of the virus spreading in many parts of the country. The vaccine distribution will take some more time to cover the masses across the country. Buoyed by the grand reopening of theatres in Pongal, more big-budget festival releases will follow suit in various languages.
Mohanlal’s Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham is gearing up for a worldwide release after a delay similar to what Master had.
The 100-crore film will hit the theaters ahead of Holi, Vishu and Tamil new year in March.
The sequel to the Kannada blockbuster KGF will release during the Ugadi festival in April.
Salman Khan’s Radhe, directed by Prabhu Deva, will release on Eid day in May.
Despite knowing very well that an escalation in COVID infections could force another round of theatre lockdown, the callousness with which some of the theatres handled the Master release should make the industry introspect.
Theatres allowing more people than the recommended capacity and the police allowing crowded celebrations outside the theaters as previous years do not indicate that they care for the people.
After all, giving fans a strong sense of safety so that they book tickets again during the next release, should have been the priority.
The year has just begun, and the industry must recover the lost viewer confidence and recoup the losses. Everything hinges on how well we set the stage for screening films in the safest manner possible.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communications professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)