The Mumbai-based film industry has lined up a diverse slate to tempt audiences during the IPL and Cricket World Cup.

Cricket has historically been the only activity that really competes with cinema-going in India, and big events like the Indian Premier League (IPL) can play havoc with release schedules.

This year the competition is even stiffer than usual as the ICC Cricket World Cup, which takes place every four years, is running Feb 19-April 2, and will be followed by the fourth season of the IPL (April 8-May 28). The IPL was hit by corruption scandals last year, but that is unlikely to dent its popularity in India. Matches are screened live on TV and on digital cinema screens across the country.

Before the IPL launched in 2008, Bollywood would roll out its big guns in April and May, the start of the summer holiday season for school-kids and students. But in recent years, distributors started to avoid releasing big titles during this period. This resulted in a bottleneck for Hindi tent-poles later in the year, but also gave breathing space to smaller films.

Now distributors are getting smarter about programming during this season and three big star-driven titles are scheduled for release before the end of May. These include two films starring Abhishek Bachchan – Eros International’s Game on April 1 and Fox Star Studios’ Dum Maaro Dum on April 22 – and UTV Motion Pictures’ Thank You, starring Akshay Kumar, on April 8.

“This year the cricket runs from February to May and in our industry it’s impossible to not release a film for three months – so we’ve decided to take on the cricket but be smart about it,” says UTV Motion Pictures CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur. “We’re releasing Thank You between the two tournaments and believe by then a certain amount of cricket fatigue will have set in. Audiences will be ready to watch a big entertainer.”

Fox Star Studios, which is releasing Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maaro Dum in India and international territories later in the month, has adopted a similar strategy. “We believe that with cricketing events spanning over three months, the audiences will be hungry to see exciting films that catch their attention during this period,” says Fox Star Studios India CEO Vijay Singh. “In addition, Dum Maaro Dum is releasing over the long Easter weekend which gives us a fantastic release window.”

At the same time, smaller films are being rolled out during this period to take advantage of the relatively less crowded release schedules.

Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, the rebooted film arm of the joint venture between Viacom and India’s Network18 group, is releasing two mid-sized titles in April – Shaitan, a youth-oriented drama produced by Anurag Kashyap, and coming-of-age comedy Pyar Ka Panchnama (see release schedule below)

Balaji Motion Pictures has three releases under its ALT Entertainment banner during this period – Marathi-language drama Island Of Stars (Taryanche Bait), Mumbai-set drama Shor In The City and paranormal romantic thriller Ragini MMS.

“It’s not too crowded during the cricket season and mid-sized, high-concept films can secure a sufficient window to perform,” says Balaji Motion Pictures CEO Tanuj Garg. “They get screen space and there’s more room in the media – it gives them a chance to prove themselves rather than being lost in the crowd.”

Other small and mid-sized releases in coming months include Bheja Fry 2, a sequel to the 2007 sleeper hit comedy; crime thriller Bhindi Bazaar Inc; Onir’s socially conscious drama I Am, and Disney-backed family film Zokkomon.

The proliferation of smaller films also reflects the growing diversity of Hindi-language output. In recent years, only a few big-budget Hindi films have struck gold each year – in 2010 it was Dabangg, Golmaal 3 and Raajneeti – while many more have crashed out at the box office.

Meanwhile, high concept or story-driven films, such as Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, Peepli Live and Tere Bin Laden, have been comfortably recouping their modest budgets, forcing the mainstream industry to sit up and take notice.

As a result, several companies are following the lead set by UTV around five or six years ago and diversifying their output over a range of genres and budgets. Some have also established youth-oriented banners – such as Balaji’s ALT Entertainment, Viacom 18’s Tipping Point Films and Yash Raj’s Y Films – to cater to young, educated audiences in the major cities who are not satisfied with the one-size-fits-all Bollywood blockbusters.

This doesn’t mean the big films are going away, despite a decrease in production levels since the funding crunch in 2008. Youth-oriented films are limited to India’s 925 multiplex screens and, when a big film performs, its profits are ten times the size of those from a small-budget release.

Indeed, from June onwards there will be a tent-pole opening nearly every weekend, including Ready, starring Salman Khan; Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, with Hrithik Roshan, and Ra.One starring Shah Rukh Khan.

But it does show that some elements of the industry are willing to innovate. After all, for decades Indian audiences only had movies or cricket to entertain them, but they now have a dazzling array of TV channels, shopping malls, video games and 3D tent-poles from Hollywood. Bollywood knows it has to be smart to keep the attention of its billion plus domestic audience.

Hindi Films release schedule April-July 2010 (subject to change):

April 1 – Game, Faltu

April 8 – Thank You, Shaitan

April 15 – Island Of Stars (Marathi-language), Bheja Fry 2, Bhindi Bazaar Inc

April 22 – Dum Maaro Dum, I Am, Zokkomon

April 28 – Shor In The City, Pyaar Ka Punchnama, Challo Dilli

May 6 – Haunted 3D

May 12 – Ragini MMS, Love U…Mr Kalakaar!

June 3 – Ready

June 10 – Double Dhamaal

June 24 – Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

June TBC – Ra.One

July 1 – Delhi Belly

July 8 – Rockstar

July 22 – Mausam