The biggest grossing foreign-language films screened in Australia are now those released here simultaneously with their appearance in India. A likely candidate for this year's box office champ is Prem Ratan Dhan Payo directed by Sooraj Barjatya. The film opened here on 36 screens and grossed $606,365, a screen average of $16,843, over its first weekend. In India, the film opened on the Diwali holiday weekend. In Australia it came in fourth in the week's box-office chart after Spectre, The Dressmaker and The Martian. Hindi film scholar and cinephile Adrienne McKibbins has sent in the following report.
A Diwali holiday release in India usually means big box office. It's a 4 day holiday period and the biggest Diwali film is always an expensive star vehicle. An extensive trailer release is followed by the music release. Because the major Diwali film is booked in months in advance, few exhibitors or producers are game to compete with it.
This year is no exception, with Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (PRDP), breaking previous records. PRDP stars Salman Khan. Last year's Diwali film was Happy New Year with Shah Rukh Khan, and it also broke BO records. Each year it is usually either a Salman or Shah Rukh Khan film that is shown at Diwali. The other superstar Khan, Aamir usually releases his big film each year for the Christmas holidays. This year however Salman has had Diwali and Shah Rukh Khan will have his much anticipated Rohit Shetty film Dilwale, costarring with Kajol released at Christmas (December 18th), Aamir will not release a film this year.
There has been considerable anticipation for PRDP for a number of reasons. Salman Khan has been on a box office roll, his star power being such that it does not seem to matter if his films are good, bad or indifferent (and they certainly are of varying quality). But the expectation here was raised as this was seen to be a special Salman film. He has reunited with the director who started him on the road to superstardom.
Some history. 1989 saw Maine Pyar Kiya hit the screens giving birth to a new Hindi hero, Salman Khan, a debutant director Sooraj Barjatya and enormous box office success. Khan and Barjatya then went on to make one of the biggest blockbusters of the nineties Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! They then made a multi starrer Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) but again with Salman Khan as one of the leads.
Now, after a gap of some 16 years, the director is back. Salman is again playing a character called Prem. He has played “Prem” in all the films the director and star have made together. Barjatya is not a prolific Hindi director, directing only six films between 1989 and 2015. Of these six films, four star Salman Khan.
Along with the combination of director/star, there was heightened excitement with the release of the trailer and music for the film. Both seemed promising. The trailer was terrific. The theme song was excellent. The film looked like a winner. The female lead, Sonam Kapoor (she is the daughter of Anil Kapoor of Slumdog Millionaire fame) looked stunning and this seemed like an excellent vehicle for her.
However, the trailer was misleading. The film was made to look like an historical drama, with princes, a princess, castles, swordfights and horse drawn carriages running amok on a mountainside/. There appeared to be fairy tale locals with lush palaces constructed atop of waterfalls. Not so, the film is actually set in contemporary times... this you know despite the surrounds when characters pull out their mobile phones. But it seems anachronistic.
There is very little that’s original. For audiences who like predictability they will not be let down. It draws heavily from Barjatya’s previous work, all his films are variations on a theme, but his previous films have all been about "everyday" Indians, large extended Indian families who live in normal houses. Here we have grand palaces, servants galore and two Salman Khans for the price of one. It is also beyond colourful, the colour and design literally leap of the screen in a dazzling manner, from the clothes to the décor.
While this colour coding works for a couple of spectacular dance numbers, including the sequence set to the title track, it becomes overblown and overwhelming when its constant for 170 mins.
Many of the Indian critics have felt the film is a disappointment, claiming it to be oversweet, simple and old fashioned. All true. While Barjatya's previous films have generally been well received critically, this one may only hold up because of Salman's stardom. For many of the Indian audience it may be the ideal Diwali film, a colourful pleasant, non-taxing, holiday affair. Critical comment often makes little difference with Hindi cinema (even more so that the west), so a star-driven extravaganza can still rule the box office, even if not one single critic has a positive comment. Unlike a number of recent Hindi films that have universal appeal, PRDP seems an unlikely candidate for a cross over audience outside its home country.
Box office reports from India can often be misleading with criteria not specified. Check out this from The Guardian which explains some of the box office "confusion".
If you want a general idea of the Indian critical response see Rajeev Masand’s review here.