TAMPA — Bollywood fever has gripped America, according to billboards around Tampa Bay promoting the International Indian Film Academy’s “Bollywood Oscars” from April 23-26.
You couldn’t tell it, though, from the closing night party Sunday at the Ritz in Ybor City for the eighth annual Gasparilla Film Festival.
Hundreds of film fans packed the event and the talk turned to state tax incentives for films, Hollywood productions considering Tampa, and other hot celluloid topics. Bollywood wasn’t one of them.
“I was at every single event and was around everybody and I did not hear any excitement over it,” said Joe Restaino, a former president and current programming director for the Gasparilla Film Festival, which drew more than 13,500 people.
Restaino finds that odd considering a projected short-term economic impact of $30 million during Bollywood weekend and an estimated 800 million viewers worldwide tuned in to see Tampa featured as host.
But organizers say it’s to be expected, even just three weeks out.
Americans know little of Bollywood — but they will by the time the awards ceremony sweeps out of town, said choreographer Shiamak Davar who works in Bollywood productions.
The event in Tampa is Bollywood’s attempt to cross over into Hollywood, its first ceremony in the U.S.
“America is a tex-mex of varied cultures and possibly the most open to arts from around the world,” Davar said. “The fact that each year a new destination accepts Bollywood through IIFA opens doors for possible cultural exchange. I understand and trust the ability of Bollywood to entertain and connect people.”
The Bollywood Oscars are as much a marketing tool as they are a way to honor its industry. The previous 14 Bollywood Oscars were held in 11 countries on four continents to introduce Indian cinema to new demographics.
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Event organizers have boasted is has always left a country with many more fans than when it arrived.
There is little question the U.S. could grow into a hub of Bollywood fandom, said Lauren Wissot, contributing editor at “Filmmaker Magazine,” which covers the independent film scene around the world. Whether the Bollywood Oscars make that happen, though, is another question, Wissot said.
For one thing, Americans would have to watch, and she doesn’t think they will.
“Think about the reasons we watch the Academy Awards — because we’ve seen the films and want to root for certain players,” she said. “Most Bollywood stars are not household names, so we’ve nothing invested in their losses or wins.”
The International Indian Film Academy says America is already Bollywood’s second largest market outside of India. England is its tops.
Again, the evidence from Tampa notwithstanding.
Vidya Balan is billed as Bollywood’s answer to Jennifer Aniston in terms of star power, yet when she stepped onstage for a promotional event during lunchtime at Tampa’s Joe Chillura Courthouse Square she was greeted by just 200 fans, almost all of them Indian Americans.
If Hollywood’s Aniston made such an appearance in India, she could expect a much larger crowd, said Francis Vayalumkal, founder of Tampa’s India International Film Festival, which promotes independent films produced by Indians.
“Her show ‘Friends’ is huge in India,” Vayalumkal said. “American pop culture is big in India.”
Bollywood, on the other hand, is not a big part of American pop culture, said Eric Odum, founding president of the Gasparilla Film Festival and now on its advisory board.
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Odum is excited about Bollywood’s arrival but says he’s among the few not of Indian descent.
Bollywood may be too different from Hollywood for Americans to accept, he said.
“Bollywood films are not musicals but rather movies that include song and dance,” Odum said.
“But the closest thing we can compare to them in America is musicals. A musical film is big in America maybe every five years. That tells you America may not ever support Bollywood-type films regularly.”
American moviegoers, he said, are accustomed to films featuring sex and violence.
Bollywood films are so much tamer that onscreen kissing is a rarity. A steamy sex scene is taboo.
And while Bollywood films do include fight scenes, they are less violent and also usually end in song and dance, ala “West Side Story.”
“It’s just not our cup of tea,” Odum said.
Odum attended a screening of “Slumdog Millionaire” at the American Film Institute Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2008. While not Bollywood cinema, the movie stars Bollywood actors including megastar Anil Kapoor.
Afterward, Odum met Kapoor at a restaurant.
“He told me he could not dine at a restaurant so openly in India or even in London because he is such a big star because of Bollywood,” Odum said. “But in L.A., no one recognized him.”
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A 25-minute video webinar produced by the Visit Tampa Bay tourism group seems to address Tampa’s lack of knowledge about Bollywood and its stars.
Titled “Unlock India,” the webinar is designed to educate the area on the customs of the 30,000 Indian tourists expected to arrive in Tampa for the Bollywood Oscars weekend.
Topics covered include Indian fashion, diet, language and religion.
Late in the video, hostess Niti Shah says of the Bollywood stars, “Just because you don’t recognize them, does not mean they’re not famous. If you get the opportunity to interact with the Bollywood stars, please treat them with the highest level of respect and courtesy.”
Visit Tampa Bay’s CEO and President Santiago Corrada said he is not concerned about any lack of interest over Bollywood, noting that more than 20,000 of the available 25,000 tickets for the April 26 awards show have already been purchased.
“There is tremendous interest in Bollywood from around the U.S. and throughout the world to draw a huge crowd to the event,” Corrada said.
Roshni Patel is doing her part to fan the excitement.
The 29-year-old Indian American Tampa native is editor of UrbanAsian.com, an online publication devoted to keeping North Americans abreast of all Bollywood news.
In anticipation of the awards, she is loading the website with profiles and video clips on every member of the Bollywood star constellation coming to Tampa for the awards show.
“This is a first step,” Patel said. “The Asians in town already know about Bollywood. This will educate everyone else on the industry.”
Patel said she was told the Bollywood actors have never been so excited about an Oscars event.
“This is the United States,” she said. “It is the land of Hollywood. They see this as an opportunity to begin a cross over into Hollywood.”