India’s Bollywood film industry is known for romantic, over-the-top musicals that increasingly are reaching a world-wide audience. To highlight the international appeal, the industry holds its annual awards ceremony every year outside of India.
This year, Bollywood, its glittering stars and its legions of fans, have come to Tampa, Fla. It’s the first time the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards have ever been held in the U.S.
At nearly all of the events held this week in downtown Tampa, the soundtrack has been throbbing Indian pop. At an outdoor dance concert, several thousand people — mostly Indian-Americans — gathered at a park on Tampa’s waterfront.
DJs provided the music and there were food vendors, families on blankets and even a flash mob courtesy of a couple of dozen young people breaking out into a choreographed dance routine.
In the past, these Bollywood awards have been held in international cities like Bangkok, Amsterdam and Singapore. Tampa, although on one of Florida’s most beautiful bays and experienced with hosting large gatherings, isn’t exactly an international capital.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says one selling point for IIFA was how well the city did two years ago hosting the Republican National Convention.
“They wanted to introduce the Bollywood brand to the United States,” Buckhorn says. “It had never been here before, so they picked a city where there’s a big Indian-American community, with the biggest media market in the state of Florida. So it made sense for a lot of reasons, and one thing we know how to do is put on a big show.”
But even the mayor concedes, Bollywood awards are nothing like a GOP convention.
“The Republican convention looked like me: a bunch of stuffy old white guys in suits,” he says. “This is nothing but glitz and glam and lights and music and beautiful people.”
Indian-Americans and some non-Indian fans have flocked to the Bollywood events this week. Tickets to Saturday night’s awards spectacular at Tampa’s football stadium go from a hundred dollars into the thousands. More than 20,000 people are expected, and IIFA estimates the worldwide TV audience in the hundreds of millions.
But there are also red carpet events this week, where fans can see their favorite stars up close. One of those stars is Anil Kapoor. He is well known even to Western audiences for his role in Slumdog Millionaire, emphatically not a Bollywood musical. Kapoor was everywhere in downtown Tampa this week; dancing, cutting ribbons and doing his best to charm fans and the media.
“Congratulations to all the people of Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay, we love you, you’re the best,” he said to excited fans.
To attract the stars of India’s film industry to Tampa, it takes more than charm — it takes money. The city and IIFA got significant financial help from a local philanthropist, Kirwan Patel. Patel is a Tampa cardiologist who admits he’s not a huge fan of Bollywood films, but he says he jumped at the chance to help bring a wellspring of Indian culture to his hometown.
“Culture and art is a great medium to cross barriers of race, religion [and] ethnicity,” Patel says. “And I felt that this is a good way of promoting a cultural spirit of India and introducing it to the United States.”
At all the Bollywood events this week, the cultural spirit of India was irrepressible.