‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ shows how Bollywood films can make a mark at U.S. box offices

‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ acting trio pose

Bollywood actors, from left, Swara Bhaskar, Salman Khan and Sonam Kapoor pose for photographs during the trailer launch of their upcoming film “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo” in Mumbai, India.

(Rajanish Kakade / Associated Press)

In celebration of Diwali — Indian New Year, which began Nov. 11 — South Asians in the U.S. flocked to cinemas last weekend to see the newest Bollywood release. “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo” pulled in $2.8 million in its first four days on 287 screens.

That surprisingly strong showing landed the film at No. 8 on the weekend box office — right between the American studio hits “Bridge of Spies” and “Hotel Transylvania 2.”

In that time frame, “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo” (Receive a Treasure Called Love) has pulled in more than $36 million globally, the biggest worldwide opening for any Bollywood film in history, said Gitesh Pandya, head of Box Office Guru, a consulting company specializing in marketing and releasing films for the South Asian audience in North America.

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The film has been playing throughout the Los Angeles area, including in Encino, Simi Valley and Burbank. Pandya said that the film was advertised heavily on Indian and Pakistani TV channels in the U.S. and had significant traction on social media (the trailer has had almost 19 million YouTube views).

But much of the enthusiasm for the film can be attributed to the timing of its release: Diwali is the biggest holiday in India and for Indians everywhere. The film is set during that season and is a feel-good and festive piece with story lines predicated on family, loyalty, sacrifice and honor — set against magnificent palatial backdrops and interspersed with rousing musical sequences.

“The Diwali period is the perfect time to release a film which appeals to the entire family, and [this] fits the bill,” said Rohit Sharma, head of international sales and distribution sales for Mumbai-based Fox Star Studios, which made the film. Fox Star Studios is part of Fox International Productions.

The movie is loosely based on the classic novel “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Director Sooraj Barjatya, who has had a string of hits, reteamed for “Prem” with Salman Khan, one of Bollywood’s most bankable stars. Khan plays a double role: He is Prem Dilwala, an earnest, warmhearted performer who narrates lively reenactments of Hindu myths.


He is also besotted with Princess Maithili (Sonam Kapoor), a royal for the modern age: a fashion plate, virtuous, independent — yet not so much so that she will turn her back on her arranged betrothal to Prem Dilwala’s double — Yuvraj Vijay Singh, the aloof, billionaire prince of Pritampur. The prince is about to be crowned king, and his stepbrother Ajay (Neil Nitin Mukesh), wants him out of the way so he can usurp the crown.

All this plays out against exquisitely shot sets: Almost every frame in the 2-hour, 46-minute film is filled with lavish details — thousands of marigolds, pathways covered in candles, a palace made entirely of crystal and mirrors; even the villagers are color coordinated, their market stalls immaculate.

“The film may not pretend to be original, but it presents a sumptuous reaffirmation of the wholesome and colorful nation — a cause to celebrate,” said Samir Dayal, professor of English and media studies at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and author of “Dream Machine: Realism and Fantasy in Hindi Cinema.”

Certainly, despite mixed critical reviews — the film has its predictable, formulaic moments, including a perfectly tied-up ending — it broke opening-weekend records in New Zealand, Fiji, the Netherlands and Mauritius, according to Sharma.

Dayal said, however, that for overseas Indian audiences, descriptions of a film being conformist or maudlin are meaningless.

“That cluster of failings has never prevented a Bollywood film from becoming hugely successful — and may explain the film’s success,” he said. Indeed, in this case, that formula has been the draw. For overseas audiences, he said “a residual nostalgia for the ‘homeland’ exerts a powerful tug on heartstrings — and wallets.”