Bhangra dancers and Bollywood celebrities, a blur of sequins and eye-popping golden costumes, crowded the stage at a Vancouver media conference this week, facing a convention-centre ballroom packed with South Asian community leaders along with politicians and their handlers, eager to bask in a good-news announcement. Iconic Vancouver shots – the Lionsgate Bridge at sunset, kayaks on blue, blue water – flashed by on a giant screen.
And then, the main event, also carefully choreographed: the announcement of the brand-new Times of India Film Awards, its inaugural edition to be held in Vancouver. The TOIFAs, set for April, will be a three-day extravaganza with events across the Lower Mainland. The payoff? A chance to pull off something similar to what rival Toronto reaped with its Bollywood awards show two years ago – the prospect of millions injected into the British Columbia economy during the event and pumped-up Indian tourist dollars down the road.
The TOIFA awards statuette, revealed Tuesday along with a few event details, resembles a trumpeting elephant with a film reel at the end of its trunk. The symbolism could not be more apt: The TOIFAs are about film, sure, but they’re also a lot about trumpeting.
“They reach over 90 million people every single day, most of them in India,” said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, of the Times of India’s media properties. “And that kind of exposure can garner tremendous opportunities for people in our province.”
Bollywood is, by some measures, the largest film industry in the world. And it’s growing both in its global outreach and its artistic development. A new, independent cinema is emerging, and young Indian directors are pushing far beyond the escapist, song-and-dance boy-meets-girl, villain-threatens-all, boy-gets-girl formula that has defined the art form. This was evident in some of the winners at last weekend’s Filmfare Awards in Mumbai, such as Gangs of Wasseypur, about the epic struggle between three crime families that has drawn comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s work; and Paan Singh Tomar, the story of a real-life Indian athlete who became a notorious bandit. With the Indian diaspora an important target market for Bollywood studios, these alternative films often appeal to NRI (non-resident Indian) sensibilities – and are sometimes even shot or partly shot outside of India.
With Bollywood’s growing global influence come opportunities in the diaspora. In B.C., the governing Liberals have secured an event that appeals to the large South Asian community and will take place days before the provincial-election campaign officially begins.
While the filmmaking itself may be getting more sophisticated, there’s a chorus of voices here – you hear them on talk radio and read their comments online – suggesting the government spending $11-million to bring the event here is a crude strategy to attract the increasingly influential ethnic vote.
Meanwhile, the politics of Indian film awards themselves are also playing out here, with competing events – the TOIFAs and IIFAs – taking shots at one other.
The International Indian Film Academy awards – or IIFAs – made their North American debut with a splash in Toronto in June, 2011. The following November, a delegation set out from B.C. on a trade mission to Asia. While in India, the B.C. government announced it would formally bid to host the 2013 IIFAs.
In May, 2012, IIFA rejected the B.C. bid; B.C. wasn’t offering enough money. An IIFA spokesperson says his event was offered “substantially less” than what B.C. is paying for TOIFA. “When I look back, there must be some reason why they would give a [new] event more money than an event that has been around for 13 years and has been established,” said Sabbas Joseph, from Mumbai.
He suggests timing and politics may have been an issue. Before B.C. submitted its bid to host the event in June, Sabbas says the government inquired whether the event could be held earlier. “To which our response was: ‘It can only be held in June or July. Or maybe May, but we don’t do it in April, ever,’” he said.