Why are Bollywood distributors optimistic despite recent local flops' Udita Jhunjhunwala reports.

India has seen a slow start to 2007 despite earlier predictions from the Indian film industry of a buoyant first six months. 2006 was the most successful year in a decade for Hindi films in the territory and while Hindi product holds nine of the top 20 film spots between 2000-07, exhibitors and distributors are hoping for still stronger returns towards the end of the year.

In January, Salaam-E-Ishq (pictured above) and Eklavya failed to attract expected audiences, taking $5.7m (rup223.9m) and $4.6m (rup188.4m) respectively. Mani Ratnam's Guru managed to generate stronger returns of $12.4m (rup503.4m).

This was followed by March's release Namastey London which took $7.3m (rup296.3m) at home for producers Adlabs, but according to analyst Komal Nahta, 'didn't turn out to be a cash cow for (international distributors) Eros', partly due to its high budget of $8.4m (rup340m).

Surprise successes
But before exhibitors and distributors could panic, Bollywood delivered two surprises: April's sleeper hit Bheja Fry and June's heavily publicised Aap Ka Surroor.

Bheja Fry notched up almost seven times its $148,000 (rup6m) budget in box-office returns, while singer-composer Himesh Reshammiya saw surprise success in his first film Aap Ka Surroor. The love story generated $2.9m (rup118.1m) after just three weeks on release. 'If it wasn't for this film, the first six months would not have boasted a single universal hit,' says Nahta.

Production house Yash Raj Films, which delivered two of 2006's biggest hits - Fanaa ($14.4m) and Dhoom 2 ($21.6m) - has yet to repeat that level of business in 2007. Ta Ra Rum Pum is considered an average earner ($8.5m on a $7.4m budget) while the much-hyped Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is seen as the biggest letdown of the year so far. 'It was the first flop from the Yash Raj stable in 15 years,' says Nahta.

But given that the year's biggest films are typically released around the Hindu festival of Diwali and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan (usually between October and November), distributors are hoping to see a more active box office as the year ends.

Looking for a hit
Devang Sampat, vice-president of marketing and programming at Cinemax India, is confident 2007 will pick up.

'So far, 2007 is still on par with 2006, in terms of turnover,' he says. 'And with the content lined up for the rest of the year, this year could even overtake 2006. The big difference is that this year has not yet seen a mega-blockbuster hit, while last year had January's Rang De Basanti (which generated $13.5m). However, in 2007 smaller films like Bheja Fry and (Life In A ... ) Metro have made a small but steady contribution.'

The Indian box office has also been given a boost from Hollywood this year - Spider-Man 3 has already generated $15m in the territory.

Sampat adds that India is seeing a steady increase in the number of cinemas, encouraging distributors to alter release patterns. He estimates there are more than 12,500 screens across the country and counting.

'Cinemas are expanding and there is plenty of content now available,' he says. 'Previously, no film would release for at least two weeks after a mega-star cast movie but now you find four strong productions releasing on the same Friday.'

Bollywood exhibitors anticipate a series of blockbusters ahead. Adlabs Films is set to release diamond heist thriller Cash on August 3. And expectations are high for two Yash Raj films: actor Madhuri Dixit's comeback film Aaja Nachley (November) and Rani Mukherjee-starrer Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (October).

Theatre director Feroz Abbas Khan makes his big-screen debut with Gandhi My Father, about the controversial relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his son. Superstar Aamir Khan will make his directorial debut with Tare Zameen Par (December) while Farah Khan tells a tale of reincarnation in Om Shanti Om (November) starring Shah Rukh Khan.