TAMPA —Dharmen Patel never considered himself to be a Bollywood super fan.
The 41-year-old father of two young children does sit down with his kids to watch an occasional Bollywood film, but the cinema of choice in his home is Disney.
And the current Atlanta resident was a board member of the India International Film Festival Tampa Bay when he lived in this area. The independent film festival is dedicated to breaking the stereotype that all Indian cinemas revolve around song and dance by showcasing anything but Bollywood films at its annual event.
Yet when he heard in December that the International Indian Film Academy would hold its 15th annual Bollywood Oscars in Tampa, Patel’s hidden super fan came bursting out.
“I guess I’d been lying to myself for years,” he said with a laugh.
Not only did he purchase tickets to the Bollywood Oscars to be held Saturday night at Raymond James, but he also reserved seats at the Magic of the Movies and Technical Awards held on Friday night at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
The evening pays tribute to those who succeed behind the cameras in Bollywood but included plenty of live song and dance performances by some of the industry’s biggest stars.
“I kept hearing this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the stars,” said Patel. “So I figured I’d make the most out of it and see my favorite stars twice.”
That same perspective seemed to fuel most of the crowd on hand Friday night.
“Bollywood seems to be making an effort to have its fans recognize the talents of those behind the camera by giving them their own award show,” said Shamsuddin Lalani, CEO of the Desi Express, an Atlanta-based magazine covering South Asian news throughout the U.S.
Lalani said the Indian film academy recognizes fans won’t purchase tickets to see movie editors and sound designers receive awards but they can be lured to the show by celebrity performances.
The strategy seems to work. Thousands of fans were waiting outside the Amphitheatre when gates opened at 5:30 p.m., with many of the fans arriving hours early to get a prime spot to watch celebrities walk the green carpet.
Meenu Kumar of Tampa was among them. Though flustered by the four-hour wait in the sun until the celebrities arrived shortly after 7 p.m., she also seemed willing to repeat the act tonight when she attends the Bollywood Oscars.
“I may never get to see them again,” she said of the Bollywood celebrities.
So far, fan interest seems high during the first foray into America by the Bollywood Oscars, even in an area with a small Indian population. Tampa Bay’s Indian population is estimated at about 35,000.
More than 8,000 people showed up to the opening night party in Curtis Hixon Park on Wednesday night. But that was free and open to the public concert, and journalists who regularly who cover Bollywood admitted they were curious if that crowd was an aberration or a reality.
Desi Expresss’ Lalani said that in India, Bollywood is so popular that fans literally build shrines to their favorite stars in their homes.
“That’s a tough act to follow for Americans,” Lalni said.
American fans have not been as electric as those at the Bollywood Oscars Lalni attended in Toronto in 2011, but they’ve been tremendously supportive nonetheless, he said.
“The fans have been great,” he said. “I expected that. We’ve heard that this event is supposed to build new Bollywood fans, but Bollywood has a strong fan base wherever it goes already. You drop Bollywood into any city in America and it’s going to get crazy.”
International journalist Masseh Tahiry regularly covers Bollywood in the U.S. and he said Tampa’s support of Bollywood is beyond what he has seen when the Indian actors visit other American cities for events.
“I saw at least 150 fans at the Hilton at 1 a.m. on Thursday,” the official hotel of the Bollywood stars, he said. “I don’t even think there was a rumor of a celebrity appearance. It was crazy, but in a good way.”
Chad Persaud of Orlando said he never realized how big a Bollywood fan he was until he heard the announcement the Bollywood Oscars would be held in Tampa. He bought tickets to both award shows.
“I really always just saw Bollywood as a way to keep in touch with my Indian culture,” said Persaud, who was born and raised in Orlando. “Then I heard it’s coming and I realized this is my one chance to experience that culture firsthand. I’m here tonight and I’m going tomorrow night.”