Cinema Ajay Devgn speaks about his decision to charge Yash Raj Films with using unfair practices to push their Deepavali release ANUJ KUMAR

In 2004 Yash Chopra’s “Veer Zaara”, K. Asif’s “Mughal-e-Azam” in colour version, Subhash Ghai’s “Aitraaz” and Ramgopal Varma’s “Naach” released on Diwali, and except for “Naach” all of them did good business. Nobody complained about the number of theatres one got. Cut to 2012, and this Diwali only two big films, Ajay Devgn’s “Son of Sardar” and Yash Chopra’s “Jab Tak Hai Jaan”, are competing against each other but the air is filled with the smog of distrust.

Things came into the public domain when Ajay Devgn Films filed a petition in the Competition Commission of India alleging that Yash Raj Films is using its “dominant position” in the market to ensure that more single screen theatres showcase “Jab Tak Hai Jaan”. This Monday, the Commission rejected the plea as it didn’t find merit in ADF’s argument. However, Ajay is not convinced and has approached the Appellate Tribunal, which had not decided on the case till the time of this story going to press.

A man of few words and fewer controversies, Ajay Devgn says it is not a happy situation to be in. “We tried to resolve the issue by mutual understanding but when the compromise didn’t work out we had to go to the CCI as a last resort.” He says CCI may not have ruled in his favour but six months from now, the industry will applaud him for standing up to the “injustice” and “arm twisting tactics”. “Many exhibitors have come to me and have supported my stand.” The crux of the matter, according to Ajay, is that YRF signed an agreement with single-screen theatre owners at the time of the release of “Ek Tha Tiger” that they would get to showcase the Salman Khan starrer only if they agreed to give two weeks of uninterrupted run to the Yash Chopra film releasing on Diwali. Ajay calls it an unfair practice because he is left with very few theatres. YRF’s contention is that it has booked only 1500 theatres out of 10,500-odd theatres in the country, but Ajay counters that most of the remaining theatres are in the South and don’t screen Hindi films. “Some of them are not in operation. If there are so many theatres available why didn’t they sign them for ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’,” he asks.

According to sources, as of now in Delhi “Son of Sardar” has got only four single screens out of 22. They are Golcha, Liberty, Moti and Delite Diamond. Moti is known for screening Bhojpuri films, and Delite Diamond with its limited seating capacity is known for screening the second film of the week. “Fairness demands that it should be left to the audience and exhibitors to pick and choose the film they want to see or screen. Mine is a big film but what about small independent filmmakers? Do they not have the right to release a film during the festival time? A Marathi filmmaker has already complained about how his film was taken out of theatres because of ‘Ek Tha Tiger’. If we are the big players we should show some magnanimity.”

There is a point of view that Ajay could have avoided the clash because YRF announced their Diwali release much before him. “I have full faith in my product and at the time of Diwali, two-three films could easily do well. It has happened in the past. It is only after I came to know that many single screen theatres are not available that I realised there is a problem, but by then it was too late because at the end of the month we have ‘Talaash’ followed by ‘Khiladi 786’ and ‘Dabangg 2’. From the promos you can easily make out which of the two films require more single screen theatres. It shows there is an element of fear.”

After the demise of Yash Chopra, an element of emotion has crept into the controversy, as many feel that Ajay should back off as it will spoil relationships. “I don’t know about the relationships. He was a legend and I am sad about losing him but if somebody brings sympathy to cover an unfair practice, it is not right.”

There is a Salman Khan angle to the story as well. Salman has done a cameo in “Son of Sardar” and is backing Ajay through social media.

“It is not between actors. The matter is between producers. We shot the song with Salman four months backs when there was no issue,” clarifies Ajay.

The bigger question is why stars need the safety cushion of festivals to reach out to the audience. “‘Bol Bachchan’ and ‘Singham’ were not festival releases and they did very well. Festivals help in reaching out to the largest possible audience. It is like a journalist trying to put his article on a date when he expects maximum readership.”

These days controversy has become a tool to create curiosity about the product, but Ajay refutes the charge. “In fact I am being told that by raising the issue I have warmed up their film.”

“Son of Sardar” is a remake of a Telugu blockbuster “Maryada Ramanna” and the promos have ‘larger than life’ written on them in capital letters. Apart from the “The Legend of Bhagat Singh”, Ajay has never played a Sikh character. “It is strange that nobody saw me as a Punjabi character all these year. I am a pure Punjabi and that’s why the character didn’t prove to be a challenge. It is larger than life but not senseless. This is my third film with Ashwini Dhir (writer-director). He is a rare Bollywood director whose comedy has depth. I am playing a wholesome character, who does comedy, romance and action. His punch line is paaji kabhi hans bhi liya karo . (Try to smile sometimes, brother). Ajay clarifies that the film is not making fun of Sikhs. “We are presenting them as large hearted people. Sardar stands for somebody who takes a lead and that is what the film tries to portray in a light-hearted fashion. Some people objected when the promo said that there would be no jokes had there been no sardars . But they forgot the next line says kaun laata rukhe chehron pe haanse (who would have brought smiles to grim faces).” Is he done with serious cinema? “No, not at all I am looking for a ‘Zakhm’ kind of script. There are very few in the country whom audiences accept in all kinds of roles, and I am finally in such a blessed position.”

Speaking of scripting