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Indian, Bay area luminaries pitch Bollywood Oscars

TAMPA — Kiran Patel has worked for three decades to bring the culture of his ancestral India to his adopted Tampa Bay area home.

On Tuesday, he pushed Tampa close to honorary Indian statehood when he and other sponsors took over the Tampa Theatre to tout the coming of the 15th annual International Indian Film Academy Weekend & Awards celebration, also known as the Bollywood Oscars.

The festival is scheduled to be held in Tampa in four months, April 24-26.

“I’ve always enjoyed being a liaison between India and Tampa,” said Patel, a native of Africa whose roots are in India. “Knowing people through culture makes it much easier to connect. Appreciating someone’s culture breaks down the communication barrier and provides both parties with much better rapport, which adds to the city both financially and culturally.”

Culture and finance were keywords during Tuesday’s kickoff celebration.

Officials from the International Indian Film Academy tossed some hefty numbers at those in attendance.

Close to 30,000 people are expected to come to Tampa for the festivities. By the end of the weekend, by some estimates, the Bay area will be $30 million richer.

Twenty events will be held over the three days in April, including fashion shows, film and business expos and a concert, all culminating in the Oscars-style awards ceremony at Raymond James Stadium. An estimated 800 million people around the world will watch on their home screens.

To emphasize the popularity of the event, the Indian Film Academy noted that within two hours after tickets for the awards ceremony went on sale Tuesday morning, 6,500 were sold.

The Tampa Theatre was the second stop in a three-day tour marking the first-ever Bollywood awards in the United States. The first stop was Los Angeles on Monday, and New York City is next, today.

In Tampa, alongside Indian Film Academy officials, two of India’s most popular movie stars — Anil Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra — appeared to give a hint at the star power to expect.

Also sharing the stage were local officials who helped seal the deal — Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Santiago Corrada, Visit Tampa Bay’s president and CEO. The two men were among a contingent that traveled to India and to Macau to meet with Indian Film Academy officials during last year’s Bollywood awards. But the biggest star Tuesday, the man acknowledged as the leader of the partnership between the Bay area and the Indian Film Academy, was Patel.

“He was the driving force,” said Viraf Sarkari, director of Wizcraft International, an Indian communications and entertainment agency and primary sponsor of the event. “He had a belief in bringing America closer to India and hosting it here in Tampa Bay.”

Patel’s brother-in-law, Chetan Shah, had the idea to bring the Bollywood Oscars to Tampa, but he knew he needed Patel to make it a reality.

“I was the liaison between the public officials, the business community and India,” Patel said. “I have connections to all three so was able to bring them together to get this done.”

Patel began his career as a medical doctor and purchased the fledgling health-maintenance organization WellCare in 1992. He turned it into a billion dollar enterprise, sold it in 2002 for $100 million, and turned his attention toward philanthropy.

The three days of Bollywood events will make Tampa a virtual region of India, and Patel is excited about the long-term effects.

An estimated 120 Indian CEOs and 800 members of India’s film community will be here to be courted by city and county officials.

And Patel is confident visitors and viewers will fall in love with Tampa, just as he did in 1982.

“We are building a relationship with India,” said Visit Tampa Bay’s Corrada. “This will elevate it to another level. It is a relationship that will last well beyond April.”

“I am a Tampa guy and have been since 1982,” Patel said. “I feel we have so much to offer, yet people in India know Orlando and Miami but not Tampa. This will put us on the map of India’s tourism industry. Tampa will become a destination.”

Along with the warm weather, beaches and entertainment options, Tampa will provide the visitors reminders of home through the generosity of Patel and his wife, Pallavi.

They donated the land where the Hindu Temple of Florida was built. When it opened in 1996, it was the first architecturally authentic Hindu temple in Tampa and remains one of the most grandiose in the country.

They funded the construction of the Indian Cultural Center and are at the forefront of the cultural events held there.

And they were behind Tampa’s India Festival, a one-day celebration of everything Indian — from song and dance to food and fashion.

The Patels have been far from India-centric, though.

In late 2002, they donated $5 million to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to establish an arts school, named the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory. They later funded the Patel School of Global Sustainability at the University of South Florida, which focuses on research and community involvement aimed at helping vulnerable communities around the world.

In all, he has provided more than $20 million to USF.

The Patels also have given $450,000 to establish a charter school at USF for at-risk children, $3 million to support the Pepin Heart Hospital Research Institute, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to local scholarship funds.

“I committed financially to this event, too,” Patel said Tuesday.

If the Bollywood Oscars have the type of long-term impact on the area that Patel expects, it could stand as one of his greatest contributions to the area, he said.

“I have always thought, if you come to Tampa you will love it,” Patel said. “We will have 30,000 people coming here and another 800,000 watching it. They will all fall in love with Tampa.”


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